A legal battle is brewing inside a Manitoba courtroom as a group argues against the province’s chief public health officer’s powers, saying they’re too broad and far-reaching.
The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, representing seven rural Manitoba churches, told a courtroom Tuesday that Dr. Brent Roussin’s orders are not debated, studied or open for public consultation.
The group argued during the pandemic the Manitoba Legislature and elected officials have been sidelined and instead all power is turned over to Dr. Roussin to make public health orders and decisions without interference or oversight.
“There is no evidence of any consultation, any advising of the house on behalf of the minister,” Lawyer Jay Cameron told Chief Justice Glenn Joyal.
“So what it very much looks like is Dr. Roussin makes an order, the minister rubber stamps it and it becomes law and it impacts over a million people.”
Joyal pressed back at the assertion and said while there may not have been public consultations at the start of the pandemic, the government has engaged with Manitobans, the latest being last week, about re-opening plans for businesses at each stage.
Read the constitutional challenge here:
However, the group said there aren’t enough checks and balances in place seeing given the far-reaching impact it has on people.
“Everybody in the province gets locked in their house, children can’t go to school, people can’t visit their dying relatives, families can’t go to long-term care, people can’t go to church or have bible studies, people are killing themselves because their jobs are destroyed,” Cameron said.
“There should be some mechanism for the court to say ‘You got it wrong this time. Go back to the drawing board.'”
The centre’s lawyers are representing Gateway Bible Baptist Church, Pembina Valley Baptist Church, Redeeming Grace Bible Church, Thomas Rempel, Grace Covenant Church, Slavic Baptist Church, Christian Church Of Morden, Bible Baptist Church, Ross MacKay and Tobias Tissen, the minister at the Church of God Restoration near Steinbach.
The group also argued Dr. Roussin does not provide enough reason for his specific choices and actions.
“Was there any thought to how these orders would affect people’s livelihoods,” Lawyer Allison Pejovic said. “He’s not presenting any studies to justify his lockdowns.”
Pejovic said Dr. Roussin should have to provide scientific evidence to support his decisions and that the public should be entitled to see all of the data he used to come up with his decision. She spoke of why churches have had to remain closed when liquor stores are allowed to remain open.
“There is no requirement to provide the science,” Pejovic said. “Why are some buildings allowed to be open and some not? Where is the science?”
Pejovic said the science behind COVID-19 and what is being learned is constantly evolving and has evolved in the past 11 months, however, she said Dr. Roussin hasn’t provided updated data to match his recommendations and orders.
“The science is directly related to the orders he is making,” she said. “Is it necessary that we all stay at home because we can spread this in an asymptomatic manner? There needs to be a section in the Act that requires Dr. Roussin to provide the latest science.”
“We are putting out trust in one person… and when you put your trust in one person there has to be accountability.”
A lawyer for the province said there are safeguards to prevent abuse of power and layers of accountability.
“There are several layers of accountability and checks,” Lawyer Michael Conner said.
He also said it’s not uncommon to delegate certain powers within government.
All public health orders must be signed off by the health minister and meet the threshold that there is a serious or immediate threat to public health which can only be prevented by these measures and/or restrictions.
“It’s not an unbridled wide-open power as my friend suggests,” Connor said.
At a press conference Tuesday, Dr. Roussin said because the challenge is before the courts, he would not be commenting.
The hearing is expected to last two days and a full hearing is scheduled for eight days in April.
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