March 15, 2022
It began as an experiment in communal living.
But an arrangement between two “off-grid” couples to buy a central B.C. acreage and live together on it dissolved into an acrimonious court battle involving accusations of uncleanliness and a heated disagreement over chicken butchering.
Following an 11-day trial spread over months, a B.C. Supreme Court judge last week rejected a bid by one of the couples to sue the other for trespass and defamation related to a Facebook posting accusing their former partners of harassment.
Justice Marguerite Church found Callandra Neustater was within her rights to respond to untrue posters spread around Quesnel, B.C., accusing her and husband Jacob of being “police informants” who infiltrated “activist, anarchist, Antifa, anti-pipeline and Indigenous rights groups.”
Instead, Church concluded it was the Neustaters who had been defamed by posters that were either created by or at the direction of Michael McKerracher, who — together with his wife and musical partner Rachel — started the court battle.
An ‘off-the-grid’ alternative lifestyle
The judge’s lengthy ruling tells the story of two couples who purchased 17 hectares of land together in the spring of 2016 in the hopes of starting a new life together in B.C. The Neustaters had been living in Manitoba and the McKerrachers had been living in Saskatchewan, a province they deemed too “conservative” for their “unconventional lifestyle.”
They were both part of a community of “like-minded individuals who promoted and lived an ‘off-the-grid’ alternative lifestyle,” Church wrote.
According to the ruling, the Neustaters met the McKerrachers in 2015 when they travelled together during a western tour by the McKerrachers’ musical act The Grid-Pickers.
“Discussions between the four friends eventually turned to their shared wish to move to British Columbia and they began to discuss their similar interests and the possibility of communal living on jointly owned property,” Church wrote.
They split the cost of a $65,000 property, chose sites for their respective homes and both women became pregnant. Callandra Neustater engaged Rachel McKerracher’s services as a doula.
“For a few months at least, life was good for the two families. Unfortunately, this state of affairs did not last and cracks soon began to appear in their friendship,” the judgment says.
Church said the couples never put their expectations for communal living into writing.
And the two men began arguing.
Michael McKerracher felt “the Neustaters were being controlling by asking him to park his vehicles off the property, not to leave derelict vehicles, and complaining about him having gatherings on his own side and yard site,” the judge wrote.
By contrast, Jacob Neustater felt that “McKerracher wanted things done ‘his way’ and would get upset if the Neustaters disagreed.”
‘If I find another chicken I tie it to a brick’
Tensions escalated in September 2017 when Michael McKerracher invited friends to their home site for his birthday.
“As the birthday gathering was going on, the Neustaters were butchering chickens behind their home,” Church wrote.
“McKerracher testified that he felt that this was passive aggressive behaviour by the Neustaters because they were not invited to the party.”
The Neustaters claimed they butchered chickens for meat, something the two couples used to do together. They said they didn’t realize McKerracher was having a party, or that his guests would want to go swimming in the river — where they dumped the carcasses.
The incident resulted in an exchange of texts between the two men.
“If I find another chicken I tie it to a brick,” McKerracher wrote at one point, calling Neustater a “wannabe Viking bush loser.”
A ‘ludicrous’ offer
According to the judgment, the communal living arrangement came to an end in October 2017.
The Neustaters said they felt it was no longer safe for them to return to the property, so they proposed splitting the acreage into two strips.
The McKerrachers rejected the proposal, sending an email stating their intention to coordinate a “community meeting” instead at which the Neustaters would “have to agree to abide by whatever outcome is decided, as will we.”
They also later offered the Neustaters $15,000 for their share in the land — an offer the Neustaters said was “ludicrous” as it was less than half what they paid a year earlier.
The judgment says Neustater received a text from McKerracher calling him a “trespasser” and warning that “if you choose to ignore my messages and I see you in town or at the land, I WILL be violent towards you.”
The ‘3rd Avenue Collective’
Shortly after, posters began appearing in downtown Quesnel with pictures of the Neustaters under the headline “Police Informants.”
Callandra Neustater responded on social media.
“The people posting these posters were our friends, we bought property together, we were raising our family together,” she wrote.
“Due to these people’s mental health issues and severe paranoia they have conjured elaborate stories about us and are encouraging people to harass and hurt us.”
An anonymous, anarchist group calling itself the “3rd Avenue Collective” later claimed responsibility for the posters in an email, but the judge found McKerracher “directly responsible” for their creation and distribution.
“While he may not have physically placed the posters around Quesnel, I find that they were distributed by others and posted to social media at his direction,” Church wrote.
The judge said it was “arguable that the description of police informants is substantially true with respect” to Jacob Neustater sending a text to McKerracher threatening to call Child and Family Services and RCMP about what he claimed was an illegal marijuana business.
But she said it was “not, however substantially true” to say the Neustaters are “known to extort families by threatening Child and Family Services and RCMP unless money is paid.”
As such, Church said Callandra Neustater’s Facebook plea was a “legitimate response to an attack” on her character.
The judge also rejected the claim for trespass against Neustater because of his ownership of half of the property, which gave him a legal right to come and go.
Although Church did find that Michael McKerracher had defamed the Neustaters through the posters, the Neustaters were not seeking any damages.
McKerracher told the CBC the couple is weighing their options in regards to deciding whether to appeal.
He pointed to the judge saying “some of the evidence [she] heard at trial about the conduct of proceedings by former counsel for the defendants was indeed unfortunate and concerning.”
“We believe that we were prejudiced, for sure,” he said.
The property was eventually sold for $80,000 in April 2021.