Opinion

It would not be wrong to suggest Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief public health officer, has a penchant for understatement.

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It would not be wrong to suggest Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief public health officer, has a penchant for understatement.

Roussin typically answers direct questions with short, direct answers. He is not given to hyperbole or exaggeration.

In stark contrast to Manitoba's volatile first premier, for whom every news conference is an opportunity for political self-flagellation, Roussin has never said anything for which he must later apologize.

Right-wing centre condemned for hiring P.I. to follow Manitoba chief justice

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The chief justice of Manitoba's Court of Queen's Bench, Glenn Joyal, says he's been followed by a private investigator. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)
The chief justice of Manitoba's Court of Queen's Bench, Glenn Joyal, says he's been followed by a private investigator. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Posted: 3:14 PM Jul. 12, 2021

The revelation that a firm representing Manitoba churches hired a private investigator to tail a judge, to see if he complied with COVID-19 public health orders, sent shockwaves across the country Monday.

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

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So, when Roussin admitted on Monday at a media briefing that he and his family had been threatened by people upset over pandemic restrictions, you had to know he was telling the truth.

Many of the threats come via email or social media, he said. In at least one instance, Roussin said he was alerted by police of "suspicious activity" at his home when he was away but his entire family was in the house.

Roussin did not show emotion about the threats. He even expressed some sympathy for the frustration that led some Manitobans to lash out at him. But you could also tell he was not amused by the experience.

"I don't think that any of us can legitimately accept that threats (against) someone or their family is acceptable, no matter how much you disagree with some of the protections we've put in place."

Roussin blurted out the details of the threats after being asked about the revelation that the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, a fringe libertarian group that represents Manitoba churches, had hired a private investigator to follow Court of Queen's Bench Chief Justice Glenn Joyal.

The surveillance, apparently designed to see if he was following pandemic protocols, took place while Joyal is mulling arguments in a case against the province brought by the advocacy group. It was a situation that Joyal appropriately characterized as a threat against "the administration of justice."

Notwithstanding these extraordinary actions, it is important to remember the advocacy group, and those who support it, are a mere fraction of a sliver of a slice of Canadian society. It is not fighting for the rights of some great silent majority; it is the umbrella group for a hyperactive and miniscule minority that long ago lost touch with the reality of a pandemic threat.

Under normal circumstances — which is to say, pre-pandemic circumstances — you might assume the group and its supporters would have their time in the public limelight and then fade away.

However, as the threats against Joyal and Roussin have shown, these militants have no intention of going quietly into the post-pandemic night. Instead, there is good reason to believe that what started out as mischief may evolve into some form of mayhem.

Following judges and threatening the province's top public health official are not the actions of a group fighting the good fight for a worthy cause; they are the kind of clandestine tactics used by organized crime to intimidate public servants.

The group's president, John Carpay, claimed its actions, while "inappropriate," were "not intended in any way, shape or form, to influence an outcome in a court case." But if that's the case, then what possible purpose was there in tailing key public officials?

Following judges and threatening the province's top public health official are not the actions of a group fighting the good fight for a worthy cause; they are the kind of clandestine tactics used by organized crime to intimidate public servants.

If the investigators had uncovered evidence of someone breaking public health rules, what would the group have done with that information? Would it have been released to the media to embarrass officials and if so, to what end?

You can go through every possible scenario for what the group would have done with information about a public official who had breached public health orders, and you end up with the same outcome: the intimidation and embarrassment of a sitting judge.

Which brings us back to the people who threatened Roussin and his family.

The advocacy group may bristle at being lumped in with the people who threatened Roussin, but in the Venn diagram that maps the constellation of anti-mask, anti-vax and anti-government groups in this country, there is plenty of overlap.

The group, for example, is representing Maxime Bernier, the leader of the People's Party of Canada who was arrested in Manitoba last month for brazenly breaching public health orders. As any opinion writer who covered Bernier's arrest can attest, PPC supporters and their mouthpieces in the far-right, libertarian media have a propensity for threats and profanity unmatched in the Canadian political spectrum.

Bernier has proven that he knows how to build a coalition with toxic constituencies. His party is a safe haven for anti-immigration crusaders, yellow-vest ranters, radical evangelicals, western separatists and social conservative attack dogs.

Bernier is not really the leader of any one party; he is the self-appointed governor of the island of misfit toys.

You can go through every possible scenario for what the group would have done with information about a public official who had breached public health orders, and you end up with the same outcome: the intimidation and embarrassment of a sitting judge.

In the past, we would have just ignored groups such as this and allowed them to burn out like an ideological wildfire. But it's not clear that's going to work anymore.

There are many reasons to applaud Joyal and Roussin. But in this case, they should be congratulated for having the courage to tell the public how others have tried to intimidate them while they fulfilled their duties as public servants.

Ignoring toxic crusaders only makes them stronger. Exposing them to the harsh light of public scrutiny might just force them back into the shadows of public discourse, where they belong.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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