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Radical anti-government rhetoric appears in northern Ont. court case

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A northern Ontario couple who ran afoul of Ontario’s building code used arguments reminiscent of radical anti-government groups in a failed attempt to defend their stance in court.

The case deals with a property Jonathan English MacKay and Celine Aimee MacKay purchased in 2021 in Novar, Ont., located just north of Huntsville.

The chief building official in the community was told the MacKays had built a dwelling unit inside, as well as two other structures on the property: a two-story chicken coop and a building used as a schoolroom.

“No building permits were sought or obtained for these works,” said the appeal decision from the Divisional Court of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice.

When the building official tried to speak with them about the issue, “Jonathan MacKay attended at the township office on Feb. 16, 2022, and delivered a ‘no trespass notice’ purporting to exclude the township and its officials from the property.”

The building official returned to the property accompanied by the Ontario Provincial Police, but the MacKays refused to answer questions.

The official was able to see the dwelling unit and the other two structures and told the MacKays in writing they needed several permits and approvals to keep the new structures.

After the couple failed to comply, they were taken to court to have the orders enforced. The township was largely successful, but the judge found that one of the building official’s inspections was an illegal warrantless search and refused to enforce one of the orders to comply.

The township appealed that aspect of the decision and the Divisional Court found that the inspection was legal and allowed the township to enforce that order.

The couple represented themselves in court, but did not attend the appeal hearing. They made several arguments the Divisional Court described as “patently unmeritorious.”

They include:

- As owners of the property the MacKays were entitled to do whatever they want on the property, without interference and that the building code doesn’t apply to them;

- Attempts to enforce the building code in respect to the property amounted to an unlawful conversion of the property to the benefit of the appellants;

- The appellants are restricted to overseeing public property held for public use and have no jurisdiction over private property;

- There must be an agreement with a private property owner for the building code and municipal bylaws to apply to that owner’s property, and since there is no agreement to this effect with the respondents, the appellants have no jurisdiction over their property;

- The attempt to enforce the building code and municipal bylaws against them in respect to the property violates the Constitution Act, 1982 and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In response to a request for an interview from CTV Northern Ontario, Jonathan MacKay said in an email that he was “revoke(ing) any and all consent for you, your principles, agents, successors or assigns to contact me, my family or my associates again in any way, shape or form.”

His full response can be found at the end of this story. The MacKays represented themselves in the litigation, but did not attend the appeal hearing.

Dr. Stephen A. Kent, from the University of Alberta, said the arguments relied on by the MacKays are reminiscent of anti-government activist groups such as the Sovereign Citizens and Freemen on the Land, which Kent has researched.

“Generally speaking Sovereign Citizens do not see the established government as legitimate,” he said.

The movement has a complicated history, emerging during farming crises in the 1970s and 1980s, but in essence, believers are convinced that they have a long list of inherent rights that prevail over governmental laws.

“So for example, (the MacKays) argued that there was no agreement for government officials to come into their property and do building code inspections,” Kent said.

“The Sovereign Citizens disregard the authority of the state to make preventive regulatory legislation. All legislation is, in fact, a contract for Sovereign Citizens. So even if the government makes a law, it has no effect unless the affected party agrees to it.”

In their view, any court action first requires an injured party, Kent said. They accept laws such as the Charter of Rights, which they see as protective, but not preventative laws such as the building code.

“The Sovereign Citizens would argue that no one's been injured, hence, the state has no authority anyway to come into the property and inspect it,” he said.

Real-world problems arise when adherents take their cases to court – where they “always lose,” Kent said.

“It can be very costly and very damaging to them, very stressful and ultimately very harmful to their lives.”

Dr. Christine Sarteschi, a professor of sociology and criminology at Chatham University, said the underlying principle behind the movement is “believing in whatever benefits themselves.”

“It means they don’t have to follow the law and they can do whatever they want,” Sarteschi said.

While the COVID-19 pandemic did much to galvanize anti-government sentiment, she said the big driving force behind the emergence of these types of movements is social media.

People who are desperate or who are already inclined to be suspicious of authority can get pulled into online rabbit holes, she said. And social media algorithms provide them with more suggested reading that pulls them in even further.

“It's largely because of unregulated social media,” Sarteschi said.

“People can post anything they want and it doesn't have to be true at all. There are no legal ramifications for that. And so because of that (lack of) regulation, I think that has helped spread these ideas so far and wide.”

When believers in the Sovereign Citizens movement lose in court, Kent said a number of reactions are common.

“Some people say, ‘Oh I see that I was wrong. My logic was wrong,’” he said.

“Other people dig in deeper -- it depends upon perhaps their social networks.”

But people have done jail time and paid fines by clinging to these beliefs, he added.

“They are the ones who suffer -- they really cannot win in these extralegal Sovereign Citizens arguments,” Kent said.

“They always will lose and the Canadian court law is now well established to identify what the Sovereign Citizens’ legal strategies are and now they have no legal impact in the court system.”

Sarteschi said that, particularly in the U.S., where gun laws are less restrictive, confrontations over matters such as the building code can be dangerous.

“They have shot and killed (police) officers in the past,” she said.

“People tend to laugh at them but I never do. We should take people like this very seriously, (people) who don’t think they have to follow the law.”

Kent said he was struck by the fact the building inspector had police accompany him to the MacKay property.

“We all know people will defend their property,” he said.

“If they feel like the state is making an unwarranted intrusion on their property or things are at a crisis -- if things are so bad that people might believe they're going to lose their property -- then they can be dangerous.”

Read the full court decision .

Email from Jonathan MacKay:

Hello Darren, Chelsea, principles, successors, agents and assigns,

Take Notice:

You do not have my permission or consent to use or publish my name, location, my business or any information about me in your writings. I do not consent to any public interference or infringement in my affairs. Your facts are incorrect - any allegations, false claims, assumptions, presumptions or presentments of hearsay is an infringement on my rights, slanderous, and would cause me and my family harm.

Please refrain from using my business general inbox to disseminate false, harmful or private information to my staff.

I revoke any and all consent for you, your principles, agents, successors or assigns to contact me, my family or my associates again in any way, shape or form.

Regards,

Jonathan 

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