Rowdy court behaviour part of 'cluster' of sovereign citizen activity

·5 min read
An Ottawa court appearance where a man declared he was the Crown points to the spread of the sovereign citizen movement, according to a professor who's been tracking it. (Danny Globerman/CBC - image credit)
An Ottawa court appearance where a man declared he was the Crown points to the spread of the sovereign citizen movement, according to a professor who's been tracking it. (Danny Globerman/CBC - image credit)

An Ottawa court appearance for a man known as "the trucker who never left" was derailed this week when he declared God was his lawyer. It's the latest example of what some observers say is a cluster of "anti-government" cases attempting to challenge legal convention.

Walter Derksen, also known as "Brian" to his supporters, appeared to repeatedly interrupt court proceedings Wednesday with statements including that he was the Crown.

While those claims might sound like simple bluster, Christine Sarteschi said they point to the spread of what's known as the sovereign citizen movement.

The associate professor of social work and criminology at Chatham University in Pittsburgh studies the phenomenon, and said she has tracked its growth in 27 countries, including Canada.

"Sovereign citizens are people who don't believe the law applies to them," she explained, adding the concept has been around in some form since the 1950s.

"I think the appeal is, it's like a get-out-of-jail-free card in some respects … [they think] you don't have to do all the things that everyone hates to do. But that is just simply not the case."

Derksen is charged with obstructing a peace officer and causing a disturbance by being drunk.

After repeatedly interrupting court staff during his court appearance Wednesday, the justice of the peace ordered him to be removed from the room. He'll be back in court later this month.

Arguments destined to fail, says lawyer

The disruption is the latest in a series of unconventional legal approaches being taken in Ottawa that, according to another expert, at best delay the justice process, and at worst cause social unrest and possibly even physical harm.

"It can result in matters taking longer," said Stephanie DiGiuseppe, a partner at the Toronto-based law firm Ruby Shiller Enenajor DiGiuseppe, and a director of the Criminal Lawyers' Association.

"When matters take longer and a person is detained, they will spend longer in pre-trial custody and that's a bad effect of engaging in this kind of behaviour."

Derksen has referenced sovereign citizens in videos posted on social media, including one posted on YouTube on June 2, in which he said people are supposed to operate under "God's law."

"We're sovereign citizens," he said at one point. "Everything that goes on in these courtrooms is fiction," he added a short time later.

In a live video shared on Facebook that same day, he mentioned giving police his "sovereign rights speech."

Despite Derksen's statements, DiGiuseppe said sovereign citizen arguments do not work in court.

"Arguments that the Canadian courts don't have jurisdiction over a person in Canada are simply going to fail," she said.

Sarteschi said the movement in Canada came on her radar during last winter's convoy occupations, when she saw videos of people deputizing themselves in an attempt to act as peace officers.

Dan Taekema/CBC
Dan Taekema/CBC

She also mentioned The United People of Canada (TUPC), a controversial group with ties to the Freedom Convoy movement and the protest that shut down downtown Ottawa around Parliament Hill for weeks.

While TUPC often posts about the rule of law and private prosecution, it has also created what it calls the "People's Security Force" and performed what the group referred to as a "citizen's arrest" to retrieve a water gun.

The approach is slightly different, said Sarteschi. "Anytime somebody is attempting to interpret the law in a way that is inconsistent with how legal professionals interpret the law … and they're trying to import their own interpretation that no one finds valid, that I categorize as being sort of anti-government in nature."

Sovereign citizen beliefs often include not paying taxes or registering vehicles, and challenging the legitimacy of the court — tactics the professor said she has never seen succeed in any country.

Moving toward an 'uncivil society'

But while it might be tempting to dismiss those who are part of the movement as "clowns," Sarteschi said there's a danger to not taking it seriously.

A group of people who follow a QAnon conspiracy theorist, who purports to be the "Queen of Canada," recently gathered in Peterborough, Ont., to attempt to arrest police officers.

Several members of the group ended up being taken into custody instead, including a man who previously told CBC they were trying to complete "a peaceful, lawful citizen's arrest, because we're tired of the tyranny within the corporation of Canada."

Sarteschi said people who ascribe to sovereign citizen ideas truly believe in them, and can be surprised and even become indignant when confronted.

That can lead to dangerous and violent situations both for people who hold those views and police, she said.

"I always describe them as being self-serving because they are looking to do something that (only) benefits them," Sarteschi said. "It doesn't matter that it's irresponsible or that it might harm other people in society."

The professor said critical thinking and challenging conspiracy theories are two ways of confronting the movement. She also believes sovereign citizens should face consequences when they break the law so they're not emboldened.

"You have all these small fires they can turn into big fires where you have more people who have this attitude," said Sarteschi.

"That would be moving towards … an uncivil society and that is something I worry about a lot with these groups."