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Edmonton church, pastor charged $80k for refusing pandemic inspection

An undated photo of Edmonton's Church in the Vine. A provincial court judge fined the church and its pastor $80,000 after they refused entry to a public health entry three times during the pandemic. Global News

An Edmonton church found guilty of obstructing a health inspector on multiple occasions has been fined $80,000 by a provincial court judge.

On three different dates in 2021, a public health inspector went to the church to see if everyone was wearing masks and maintaining distance from each other, as required by the pandemic Public Health Order at the time.

Tracy Fortin, pastor at Church in the Vine, refused the inspector entry on March 7, March 14 and June 5.

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“The refusal was polite but firm, the inspector could not enter. The inspector did not argue. She left the area,” Judge Shelagh Creagh wrote. “Efforts had been made to arrange other suitable dates for the inspection, but those arrangements either fell through, or the efforts to find a date failed.”

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Both the church and pastor bear a “high degree” of responsibility, Creagh wrote in a decision published Wednesday. “This was not a spur of the moment decision to stop the inspector. It was a deliberate refusal to allow the inspector to do her duty. That refusal continued over four months and three separate occasions. It was an intentional and deliberate choice on their part which makes their degree of responsibility high.”

The judge also noted the gravity of the offence is high.

“Albertans were dying from COVID and our hospitals were challenged to accommodate and treat the sick. Major surgeries were postponed and treatments for other illness were postponed.”

Creagh said the spread of COVID-19 within the community was a potential effect of the offence and society is still identifying the ongoing effects of the coronavirus.

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“Those include serious and ongoing illnesses, such as long COVID. There are also ongoing consequences to our health system,” Creagh wrote.

Fortin faces $15,000 in fines, and the church faces $65,000 in fines including victim fine surcharges.

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Crown prosecutors sought $120,000 in total fines, while defence lawyer James Kitchen argued for just $12,000 in fines.

Kitchen called the fine amounts “absurd” and “a travesty,” pointing to fines under the Public Health Act being much lower pre-pandemic.

“You can justify anything with those five letters (COVID),” Kitchen told Global News. “Not to say that we didn’t expect this, but I think it’s a travesty and I think it’s absurd, and I think these fine amounts are not supported in the case law.”

He said he and his clients are planning on appealing the decision, alleging he didn’t get to present an argument for the church’s Charter rights during the trial.

The church and Fortin have until August 31 to pay the fines.

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