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John Victor Carpay has been charged with intimidation of a justice system participant, and with attempting to obstruct justice.Bill Graveland/The Canadian Press

The president of the Calgary-based Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms says he is shocked by his arrest for attempted intimidation of a judge, more than a year after he apologized for hiring a private investigator to conduct surveillance of Manitoba’s Chief Justice.

In 2021, John Victor Carpay hired a private investigator to tail then-premier Brian Pallister; the province’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Brent Roussin; and Chief Justice Glenn Joyal to determine whether any of them were breaching the public-health regulations related to COVID-19 that were in place at that time.

The surveillance was carried out while Chief Justice Joyal was presiding over a case involving seven Manitoba churches – represented by Mr. Carpay and the Justice Centre – who were challenging public-health orders.

In July of 2021, Chief Justice Joyal held a special hearing after learning that a private investigator had been hired to look for any embarrassing instances of him breaking public-health regulations. Chief Justice Joyal said he realized he was being tailed when he left the Winnipeg courthouse earlier that month. The private investigator followed him to his cottage, and a person, who appeared to be a teenage boy, also went to his home and spoke with his daughter.

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“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 uncharted waters,” Chief Justice Joyal said at that time.

Mr. Carpay said he was exclusively responsible for the decision to conduct “passive surveillance” of the three men, and he apologized to the Chief Justice during the hearing.

The Canadian Bar Association and the Manitoba Bar Association also condemned the effort to target a sitting judge.

The backlash over Mr. Carpay’s actions prompted the Justice Centre to announce that he had been suspended “indefinitely.”

He was back at work seven weeks later, but as the top lawyer for the Justice Centre, he now faces an uncertain future.

Mr. Carpay has been charged with intimidation of a justice system participant, and with attempting to obstruct justice. The charges follow an investigation by the major crimes unit of the Winnipeg Police that found Mr. Carpay hired the private investigator while he was in the process of bringing a high-profile constitutional challenge to Manitoba’s COVID public-health orders in a case presided over by Chief Justice Joyal.

Mr. Carpay declined to be interviewed by telephone, but in an e-mailed response to questions, he said he turned himself in to Calgary police on Dec. 30 when he learned there was a warrant for his arrest. He spent a night in jail before he was released. “This charge was shocking, confusing, and unexpected. The events at issue took place more than 17 months ago and law enforcement authorities have never contacted me regarding them,” he wrote.

A Jan. 1 press release from the Justice Centre questioned the timing of Mr. Carpay’s arrest.

“The Justice Centre is deeply disappointed by the decision of Winnipeg Police to lay a criminal charge for events that took place more than 18 months ago and that are already being dealt with appropriately. It is doubly disappointing that it was decided that these actions should take place during the holiday season when Mr. Carpay is spending time with his family.”

The Justice Centre noted that its board of directors condemned Mr. Carpay’s actions at the time. It said the board “took appropriate steps to strengthen governance and oversight of the organization while Mr. Carpay took a seven-week leave of absence.”

Mr. Carpay also faces sanctions from the legal profession. The Law Society of Manitoba has authorized charges of professional misconduct, and a disciplinary hearing has been set for February. Those charges include undermining public respect for the administration of justice, and a breach of integrity.

In October, 2021, the Manitoba churches represented by the Justice Centre lost their case. Chief Justice Joyal ruled that Manitoba’s temporary ban on in-person religious services and severe limits on other gatherings, including protests, were reasonable public-health responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, and therefore lawful.