A group supporting multiple churches across the country in court challenges against COVID-19 public health orders has admitted to hiring a private investigator to follow a Manitoba judge.
“I accept full responsibility and sole responsibility for my decision to retain private investigation firms for observation of public officials,” said John Carpay, president of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms.
Carpay apologized for his “poor judgment” during a special hearing Monday called by the judge overseeing a court challenge of COVID-19 restrictions in Manitoba. He argued, however, the validity of conducting surveillance of other public officials in the country.
Court of Queen’s Bench Chief Justice Glenn Joyal said he realized he was being followed by a vehicle after leaving the courthouse last week.
He said a person, who appeared to be a teenage boy, also went to his home and spoke with his daughter. There was also information his private cabin was observed.
Joyal said it soon became clear a private investigation agency was hired “for the clear purpose of gathering what was hoped would be potentially embarrassing information in relation to my compliance with COVID public health restrictions.”
“I am deeply concerned and troubled,” he said in a written statement later emailed to media.
Joyal said Winnipeg police and the Government of Manitoba’s Internal Security and Intelligence Unit are investigating.
“It is also my hope that the Government of Manitoba and the relevant regulatory authorities bring a closer examination as to how private investigation agencies are licenced and how, if at all, they are overseen,” he said.
Joyal heard a constitutional challenge from seven Manitoba churches represented by the Justice Centre in May. The churches argued their right to worship and assemble was violated by COVID-19 restrictions.
Government lawyers told court it’s within the bounds of the legislature to grant the chief public health officer authority to impose reasonable rules.
Joyal has yet to rule but said his decision, expected in a few weeks, would not be influenced by his experience being followed by the private investigator.
Read Joyals’ full statement here:
He did, however, point to potential implications for the administration of justice.
“The situation I have just described raises the spectre of potential intimidation and it could also give rise to possible speculation about obstruction of justice — direct or indirect,” Joyal said.
The Justice Centre has also filed challenges against public health orders on behalf of churches or individuals in other provinces, including Alberta and British Columbia.
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Carpay defended his group’s decision to organize private investigation surveillance on a number of public officials across the country.
He said the move to hire a private investigator “is not connected to our our litigation work” and the Justice Centre’s clients did not request it.
“Our work is limited not only to litigation, but we also seek to educate the public about charter rights and freedoms. We also seek to hold government officials accountable to the rule of law,” he said in court.
“We believe that the public has a right to know whether or not government officials are complying with public health orders.
“We believe that the surveillance and observation of government officials is legitimate and legal.”
The lawyer representing the churches, Jay Cameron, also apologized.
“As an officer of the court and as somebody who has made arguments before your lordship, I want to apologize for my involvement in this,” he told the court.
Lawyer Michael Conner, who represents Manitoba in the case, said there is significant concern that a firm, especially one involved in an ongoing case, hired a private investigator to follow a sitting judge.
“There is a distinction between investigating public officials and investigating an independent the independent judiciary that are constitutionally protected,” Connor told the court.
“And that does raise grave concerns for the administration of justice.”
‘Not acceptable in a free and democratic society’
Surveillance of the judge was widely condemned following the revelation.
In a joint statement both the Canadian Bar Association (CBA) and the Manitoba Bar Association (MBA) “unreservedly” denounced the Justice Centre’s decision to hire a private investigator to follow Joyal.
“We condemn this kind of behaviour being directed against a judge and at no time would it have any place in the conduct of a trial,” reads the statement signed by CBA president, Brad Regehr, and MBA president, Ian Scarth, in part.
“Judicial independence is a crucial legal principle that guarantees judges have the freedom to make their decisions based solely on the facts and the laws. Judicial independence is precisely that which guarantees the rights and freedoms of every person in Canada.”
Margaret Wiebe, the chief judge of provincial court, echoed Joyal’s concerns in a statement saying the surveillance is “an affront to the democratic principles we live by as well as to the administration of justice generally.”
Justice Minister Cameron Friesen said in a statement that he is very concerned. He suggested Premier Brian Pallister may have also been under the watch of private investigators.
“Similar situations have been experienced by the premier recently. As these matters are currently under investigation, I am not in a position to comment further,” he said.
Politicians and public officials have been faced with increased scrutiny and threats throughout the pandemic.
Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s chief provincial public health officer, said Monday that he is not aware of whether the Justice Centre had been surveilling him. But he has been in contact with police about suspicious activity around his home.
“I’ve certainly had a number of threats against me and my family,” Roussin said.
–With files from Brittany Greenslade and Shane Gibson