BRITISH COLUMBIA/MANITOBA: The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms today advises that dates have been set for the hearing of two urgent lawsuits against lockdowns in British Columbia and Manitoba. On March 1-3, 2021, the Justice Centre challenge to BC’s public health orders restricting protests and prohibiting worship services will be heard by Chief Justice Hinkson at the Supreme Court of British Columbia in Vancouver. The Justice Centre represents over a dozen BC individuals and faith communities who have been issued tickets which total many tens of thousands of dollars for the peaceful exercise of their constitutional rights and freedoms as protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
In Manitoba, starting February 9, 2021, Justice Centre lawyers will begin a two-day hearing on a court challenge to the constitutionality of the delegation of broad and far-reaching power to the Chief Public Health Officer under The Public Health Act of Manitoba. The case will be heard by Chief Justice Joyal.
During the pandemic, the Manitoba Legislature, comprised of the people’s democratically elected representatives, has been sidelined by the autocratic authority of Dr. Roussin. Dr. Roussin’s Orders are not considered, debated, amended, studied, or opened for public consultation.
The full hearing on the Manitoba Charter challenge is scheduled for eight days beginning April 19, 2021. This portion of the lawsuit challenges Manitoba’s lockdown measures as unjustified violations of the Charter-protected freedoms of conscience, religion, expression, and peaceful assembly. The action also contends that Manitoba, Dr. Brent Roussin as Chief Public Health Officer, and Dr. Jazz Atwal as the Acting Deputy Chief Public Health Officer, failed to consider the collateral social and health costs of locking down society, and contends that their Orders cannot be justified by section 1 of the Charter.
The Manitoba court action was filed December 9, 2020. The Justice Centre is representing seven churches, a minister, a deacon, and an individual fined for exercising his Charter rights to peacefully protest and express himself at a rally in Steinbach, Manitoba. Members of the faith communities bringing the lawsuit in Manitoba say they have experienced sadness, loneliness, a crisis of conscience and harm to their spiritual well-being due to the prohibitions on in-person worship which have persisted since mid-November, 2020. The Manitoba government permits many people to gather in big box stores and in smaller numbers in liquor stores, while places of worship must remain closed.
The BC legal challenge was filed January 8, 2021 in the Supreme Court of British Columbia and challenges the restrictions on public protest and worship services resulting from Public Health Orders issued by B.C. Chief Medical Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry. A three-day trial is scheduled to run from March 1-3, 2021 on the constitutionality of the lockdowns and the broad infringement of British Columbians' constitutional rights.
Dr. Henry's Orders prohibit public organizing or attending “events” “except as provided for in” the Orders. Citizens who have gathered to peacefully protest the devastating impact of Dr. Henry’s lockdowns have been ticketed for the exercise of their right to peaceful assembly as protected by section 2(c) of the Charter. Tickets have also been issued to churches for allegedly not collecting contact information for worship attendance. Since November 19, 2020, in-person worship services have been prohibited entirely, regardless of the extra safety measures implemented by faith communities.
The BC faith communities challenging the lockdowns assert that they have gone to extraordinary lengths to comply with the oppressive health guidelines, including limiting attendance to no more than 50 persons, pre-registering attendees, rearranging seating to ensure physical distancing, providing hand sanitizer and masks, and enhancing cleaning and sanitizing procedures. Some of the congregation’s members cannot access online services, and to many in these faith communities, gathering in-person is essential to their spiritual and emotional well-being. Affidavits have been filed attesting to the negative effect prohibiting in-person gatherings has had on individuals, including loneliness, depression, anxiety and fear. Although support groups are permitted to meet, the Orders prohibit faith communities from gathering for any “worship or other religious service”.
The BC government allows hundreds of people to gather at any given time in a single big box store. Liquor stores and marijuana stores remain open. The government allows residents to gather and seat six at a table at bars and restaurants. But to the churches, Dr. Henry states: “Do not attend a service at a church, synagogue, mosque, gurdwara, temple, or other places of worship”.
The Petition challenges the Orders on the basis that they unjustifiably violate the rights and freedoms of BC residents protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. “Freedom of conscience and religion” and “freedom of peaceful assembly” are two of the fundamental rights protected by section 2 of the Charter.
The Justice Centre has been inundated with hundreds of emails from people in Manitoba and B.C. who are being financially ruined by lockdowns, suffering from mental health and social and domestic problems, losing their businesses and retirement, and being ticketed by bylaw officers for refusing to wear masks or for continuing to assemble with friends and family. Many individuals have been unable to see their elderly parents and still more have been denied critical health care for conditions other than COVID-19.