A Manitoba judge has ruled pandemic restrictions put in place by the province last year were not a violation of charter rights, in response to a court challenge brought by seven rural Manitoba churches and three individuals last December.
In a two-part decision handed down Thursday, Court of Queen’s Bench Chief Justice Glenn Joyal said he found that the public health orders were reasonable limitations on the group’s charter rights in the context of the pandemic, and that Manitoba’s chief public health officer did have the authority to execute them.
The group had argued measures instituted by the province last year to curb the spread of COVID-19 were unjustified violations of charter-protected freedoms of conscience, religion, expression and peaceful assembly.
Joyal said that while fundamental freedoms should not disappear in a pandemic, he accepted that the Manitoba government had to make swift, decisive decisions in order to regain control of the virus and save lives.
“Those witnesses who testified on behalf of Manitoba and who were in a position to exercise the necessary authority, made it clear that they did not believe that they ‘could afford to get it wrong,’ ” Joyal wrote.
The applicants, by contrast, had failed to make a convincing argument that there was insufficient proof to justify the restrictions, saying that the evidence they presented in court represented “at best, a contrary if not contrarian scientific point of view.”
At the time the challenge was brought forward, Manitoba was in the midst of the second wave of the pandemic, with hundreds of people in hospital and multiple deaths from the illness each day.
Just days before the group filed court documents, Manitoba recorded 19 deaths from COVID-19 — the highest number in a single day in the province during the pandemic thus far.
Manitoba moved to the red, or critical, level of its pandemic response system on Nov. 12, and restrictions were soon tightened even further, ushering in widespread closures to the retail sector, places of worship and a range of other services deemed non-essential.
Head of group behind challenge had judge followed
The group behind the court challenge was represented by the Calgary-based Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, which has launched a number of similar court cases across Canada challenging public health measures.
In July, the head of the group, John Carpay, was put on an indefinite leave after admitting he hired private investigators to follow both Joyal, as he was presiding over the case in Manitoba, and some other senior government officials.
Carpay has since been reinstated.
During two weeks of hearings in May, lawyers for the group of churches presented a case that the province had failed to consider the social costs and impacts on people’s mental health from the restrictions.
Among the first witnesses to testify was Tobias Tissen, a pastor with the Steinbach-area Church of God, who said he had “no authority scripturally based and based on Christian convictions” to impose the restrictions and prevent people from attending church.
Tissen and his church have repeatedly flouted the province’s public health measures during the pandemic and participated in protests against the restrictions. Earlier this week, Tissen was arrested for violation of the orders, after an arrest warrant was issued earlier this year.
Province argued restrictions were necessary
Manitoba’s former chief public health officer, Dr. Joel Kettner, who also testified as an expert witness on behalf of the group, was hesitant to say that all pandemics are difficult during cross-examination.
Meanwhile, the province’s lawyers argued the restrictions were a necessary limitation on personal freedoms to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and keep the health-care system from being overwhelmed.
Witnesses for the province included Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin, who testified that the measures were not imposed lightly and that personal and economic impacts were taken into account.
Lanette Siragusa, Manitoba Shared Health’s chief nursing officer, also testified on behalf of the province, telling the court that the province’s health-care system was stretched incredibly thin during the second wave of the pandemic.