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Court of Queen’s Bench Chief Justice Glenn Joyal heard a constitutional challenge from seven Manitoba churches in May. The churches argued their right to worship and assemble was violated by COVID-19 restrictions.

Steve Lambert/The Canadian Press

An Alberta 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 Calgary-based 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.

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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 cottage 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.”

Police were called to investigate, as was the provincial government’s internal security and intelligence unit. Joyal said, until Monday’s court hearing, the private investigator had refused to say whom their client was.

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.

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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.

He did, however, point to potential implications for the administration of justice.

“If we are now in an era where a sitting judge, in the middle of a case, can have his or her privacy compromised as part of an attempt to gather information intended to embarrass him or her, and perhaps even attempt to influence or shape a legal outcome, then we are indeed, in unchartered waters,” Joyal said.

Surveillance of the judge was widely condemned following the revelation.

“Any effort to intimidate a judge is not acceptable in a free and democratic society such as Canada,” said federal Justice Minister David Lametti.

The Canadian and Manitoba Bar Associations said it raises serious concerns about the safety of judicial staff.

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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.

The Justice Centre has filed challenges against public health orders on behalf of churches or individuals in other provinces, including Alberta and British Columbia.

Carpay defended his group’s decision to organize private investigation surveillance on a number of public officials across the country.

“We believe the public has the right to know whether or not government officials are complying with public health orders,” he told court.

He pointed to photos that showed Premier Jason Kenney and United Conservative Party caucus members dining closely together on a rooftop patio last month at a time when that province had public health restrictions limiting gathering sizes.

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Carpay added the decision to hire surveillance is separate from the litigation and the Justice Centre’s clients did not request it.

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 the independent judiciary that are constitutionally protected,” he told court Monday.

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.

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– With files from Steve Lambert

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