An anti-government tobacco farming family's last stand

A show of force by police in late September was the culmination of a years-long battle by members of a farming family to hang on to their land

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PORT BURWELL – The massive police presence that suddenly descended on Port Burwell sent rumours swirling through the quiet Lake Erie village and online.  

Dozens of OPP cruisers, an armoured police vehicle, ambulances and two locksmith trucks gathered at the fire hall on the west side of the village, an hour southeast of London, on the morning of Sept. 28.  

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But with no information from police, residents turned for answers to their community Facebook page, Burwell Life, where some speculated police were there to bust an illegal cannabis-growing operation.  

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Silent for hours, the OPP finally said the show of force was for an eviction and there was no threat to public safety.  

An armoured vehicle
An armoured OPP vehicle is parked at the Port Burwell fire hall for what police at the scene called “a contentious eviction” on the morning of Sept. 28, 2023. (Heather Rivers/The London Free Press)

Police were deployed to support the Elgin County sheriff’s office, the agency responsible for evictions, as it carried out evictions at a Light Line tobacco farm and a Langton property, which went ahead “without incident,” an OPP spokesperson said.

Police released no other information.

The Free Press used interviews, property records, court documents and social media posts to piece together events that led police to the farm at 57238 Light Line and other properties owned and operated by the Manary family, longtime Bayham tobacco producers, some of whose members hold anti-authority views that have led to a history of clashes with the law.

The Manary family’s most recent troubles can be traced back to 2018, when Quebec police seized two tobacco shipments worth a total of about $350,000, according to figures cited by the family. 

But it was some family members’ affiliation with the Freeman on the Land – a Sovereign Citizen-inspired movement flagged in a 2012 Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) report – that drew the enormous police presence, say two people familiar with the probe, neither of whom wanted to be identified because they’re not authorized to speak to the media.

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Manary farm
The OPP supported the sheriff’s office to carry out an eviction at 57238 Light Line, a farm owned by Brent and Kathy Manary, on Sept. 28, 2023. (Google Maps)

Ontario’s Attorney General’s Ministry said the sheriff’s office “completed the enforcement of two writs of possession,” ordered by the Superior Court of Justice in Elgin and Norfolk counties, with the OPP’s help.  

The two sources confirmed the Manary family was the target of the eviction on properties on Light Line in Bayham and in Langton in Norfolk County. It’s not clear whether the entire family was targeted for eviction, but everyone who was on the Light Line property reportedly was removed, The Free Press was told. 

Farm Credit Canada held the mortgage on the Manarys’ Light Line property, known as Sprucepoint Farms, for repayment of debts the family owed to the government, according to court documents. 

Property records show the federal Crown corporation put a lien on the property in 2019.  

FCC has been providing 24-hour security since the eviction, area residents say. Two security guards stationed on the property approached a Free Press reporter during a recent visit, but declined to provide any information.

FCC declined comment, citing privacy issues.   

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57238 Light Line
A no trespassing sign is displayed at a tobacco farm at 57238 Light Line in Bayham Township, where two security guards were stationed after the Elgin County Sheriff’s department carried out an eviction at the property on Sept. 28, 2023. Photo shot on Oct. 3, 2023. (Dale Carruthers/The London Free Press)

Back in October 2018, brothers Todd and Brent Manary found themselves in hot water after officers with the Sûreté du Québec, the provincial police force, found a 13,540-kilogram shipment of raw tobacco during a search. A second search Nov. 3 resulted in the seizure of 14,710 kg of raw tobacco.    

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The penalties included a fine of about $1 million for Todd Manary of Langton and another of about $1 million for Langton’s Encore Transportation Services.     

Todd Manary and another person were driving a truck full of tobacco produced at his brother’s farm when it was seized by Quebec police, the two sources say. 

In a 2020 Ontario Farmer article, Brent Manary and wife Kathy, who ship tobacco to Egypt and Jamaica, said the tobacco was seized based on incorrect information supplied by Ontario authorities that the loads were contraband tobacco heading to a First Nations reserve.

According to the Ontario Farmer article, the couple faced $1.8 million in fines and penalties. The Free Press was unable to determine if the couple was ultimately fined, and a 2022 Court of Quebec decision concerning the conviction of a man in connection with the 2018 tobacco shipment suggests Brent and Kathy Manary were not fined or penalized.

The couple did not directly answer an email pointedly asking them about it, but a letter the couple sent to the RCMP in 2019 included an outstanding $1.5-million bill from Ontario’s Finance Ministry.

“They’ve seized bank accounts and they’ve put liens against our property. They’ve got our vehicles listed and you can’t do anything about it. We’re done,” Kathy said in the Ontario Farmer report.

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Kathy and Brent Manary
Kathy and Brent Manary say the government appears to be intent on putting tobacco farmers out of business one farm at a time. The couple quit growing tobacco after shipments they say were destined for Egypt were seized. (John Miner/Ontario Farmer)

Contraband tobacco is a big problem in Ontario, where 21.6 million illegal cigarettes were seized last year, the provincial government says.

Ontario has the second-worst contraband tobacco problem in the Americas, with shipment sizes similar to those in El Salvador, according to the National Coalition Against Contraband Tobacco.

“Contraband tobacco is one of the largest cash cows of organized crime in Canada, especially Ontario . . .,” said a report by former coalition spokesperson Gary Grant. “To tackle the contraband problem, thereby mitigating money laundering, all governments, especially Ontario, should fulfil their community commitments and develop new initiatives.”

Brent Manary, who declined an interview request, has used social media to document his run-ins with the law and update followers on his legal cases over the years.

A video posted to his Facebook page on Sept. 13, 2019, documents a visit to his property by Ontario Finance Ministry agents and OPP officers. In the video, Manary claims he no longer grows tobacco and demands officials leave his property, calling their presence “unlawful.”   

“We are feeling very threatened by you,” Kathy, who was also there, tells the police officers. 

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The couple also demands agents retreat behind a sign posted at the end of the driveway warning people, including representatives or agents of the Crown and third parties, not to trespass on the property by land, air or sea and not to take any recordings. 

Brent Manary
Brent Manary (Facebook photo)

“All things that are above, below, in or on this private property, living or not, including the land, are under claim of right,” the large sign says.

In a Dec. 8, 2019, Facebook post, Brent writes about facing a “severe injustice” and asks followers to share the video.

“The government should not be getting away with this but we all keep letting them because we don’t know any better,” he writes. 

In the video, Kathy says: “I have been taught my whole life to bow down and obey the government. That the government is good and the police are always right. I lived a year of realizing that is not the situation.”   

Brent Manary adds: “We have rights, we just didn’t know we did.”   

Brent and Kathy Manary also wrote to the RCMP, alleging Justice Lynda Templeton banned Brent Manary from filing any more paperwork at the St. Thomas courthouse and asking for protection and the restoration of “Manary Court.”   

“The RCMP must act now,” the letter says. “Stop these people now.”   

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But the Mounties declined to investigate the allegations, according to a RCMP letter Manary posted on Facebook.

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In 2021, the Manarys tried another tactic to try to salvage their properties: Todd and Brent Manary challenged Farm Credit Canada by stating they were members of a non-status tribe known as the ASMIN Nation, according to court documents.    

Neither the federal nor provincial governments recognize ASMIN as an Indigenous nation under Canada’s constitutional arrangement, court documents say.   

The Manarys were accompanied to court by Wabiska Mukwa, also known as Zane Bell, who claims to be the hereditary grand chief of ASMIN and says his bloodline goes back to the French explorer Jean Nicolet, who was adopted into the Algonquin Nation, court documents say. 

ASMIN’s website advertises $50 memberships that include “an Indigenously-born certificate, ownership of your land and resources and access to a new wealth system where every person has equal share of our gross value.”

Mukwa declined to comment. 

The Manarys argued in court that the Farm Credit Canada claim on their property was null and void because it is on unceded property belonging to the Kinakwii or ASMIN nation. Their cases were thrown out, with the judge calling them “vexatious” and “consistent with the illegitimate litigation tactics commonly referred to as organized pseudo-legal commercial arguments.”

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“In my view, plaintiffs who file (these) claims are playing a game that is designed to frustrate the system and inflict unrecoverable expense and needless stress on the defendants,” said the judge in the case involving Brent and Kathy Manary. “It appears to me that the Manarys and the plaintiff may have adopted the illegitimate litigation tactics commonly referred to as Freeman (on) the Land.”    

The Freeman on the Land (FOTL) is the largest of the five main anti-authority movements in Canada, according to a 2017 research paper by three Canadian academics who interviewed adherents, government officials, police and other professionals who came into contact with the anti-authority community.

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The FOTL was born out of the Sovereign Citizen movement in the U.S., where adherents opposed to formal government structures were linked to bank robberies, homicides and police killings. Sovereign Citizens sprung up across Canada in the early 2000s, mostly in the Prairie provinces, and began appearing in the court systems, espousing a distinct agenda aimed at challenging the fundamental legitimacy of the government. But the movement struggled to gain traction in Canada, where issues such as gun ownership, race relations and freedom of speech differ from those in the U.S., the researchers say.

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Canadian anti-authority figure Robert Menard rebranded the movement as Freeman on the Land, using YouTube to spread his teachings including his interpretation of common law, under which he argues all people have the right to negotiate with the government and other officials on any point of dispute.

“The failure to do so (negotiate) is perceived as the government acting ‘in dishonour’ and will result in an automatic (court) default judgment in their favour,” the researchers wrote.

Anti-authority activists advocate a number of pseudo-legal tactics and methods, such as sending claims and disputes by registered mail and using pseudo-legal, fill-in-the-blank forms, the researchers say.

Most anti-authority adherents interviewed for the 2017 study were “short-term opportunists” who engaged with other like-minded people for a short time before moving on, the researchers say.

“These are individuals who find themselves in sudden dire straits – immediate family, financial, civil or other difficulty – and turn to FOTL tactics to try to work their way out of a tight spot,” the authors wrote.

A declassified 2012 CSIS report into right- and left-wing domestic terror threats in Canada highlighted the Freeman on the Land as a possible threat in Canada. 

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Phil Gurski, a former CSIS strategic analyst who has written multiple books on terrorism, said the FOTL likely landed on CSIS’s radar when the spy agency began expanding its focus on potential terrorist threats beyond Islamic fundamentalists.  

“You can call them lone actors,” he said of FOTL adherents, adding the COVID-19 pandemic likely drew more followers to the movement.

The FBI designated FOTL as a terrorist group, but Gurski said he hasn’t heard of any acts of violence linked to the movement in Canada – a finding confirmed by the 2017 study on anti-authority movements – and questioned why it would be considered a potential terrorist threat.

“The vast majority are harmless,” he said.   

Last year, the Manarys took their case to the Ontario Court of Appeal, the province’s highest court, where it was dismissed with a judge noting “the abusive nature of the proceeding is apparent.”

The Free Press reached out to all three Manarys – Brent and Kathy, and Todd – for comment about the eviction and the Farm Credit Canada claim on the property, but received only one reply: a “no reply” response from the couple’s email account.

[email protected]

[email protected]

  • Any cigarettes or tobacco products that aren’t taxed, and marked as such, are considered illegal.
  • Black market smokes can include cigarettes made in Ontario or smuggled into the province.
  • Penalties for illegal tobacco possession range up to three times the value of the tax and can include up to two years jail time for repeat offences.
  • In the year that ended in April, 21.6 million illegal cigarettes and 87,470 cigars were seized in Ontario and more than $614,000 in fines collected.
  • The province also seized 35,400 kilograms of other tobacco products.
  • Illegal sales account for one in three cigarettes sold in Ontario, with the ratio as high as 60 per cent in northern Ontario, by one estimate.
  • Ontario is the major source of contraband tobacco seized in other provinces.

Sources: Ontario government, National Coalition Against Contraband Tobacco

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