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Manitoba justice minister requests investigation into all 10 'Justice Centre' lawyers

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Manitoba's legislature building in Winnipeg. Image: David J. Climenhaga/Used with permission

Responding to the revelation last week that the founder and president of the so-called Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF) hired a private eye to follow the chief justice of the Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench, supposedly to see if he broke any COVID-19 restrictions, the province's justice minister has called for the provincial law society to launch an investigation of all 10 of the Calgary-based organization's lawyers.

JCCF founder John Carpay was in court last Monday representing seven Manitoba churches that object to COVID-19 restrictions on constitutional grounds when Chief Justice Glenn Joyal, the presiding judge in the case, paused to reveal that someone had been following him and casing his house.

That was the point at which Carpay admitted it was he who had hired the private gumshoe.

As a result, Justice Minister Cameron Friesen said in a terse press release Thursday, "as attorney general, I have written to the Law Society of Manitoba to request that it initiate an investigation into the conduct of lawyers associated with the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms."

"It is gravely concerning that a private investigator was hired to conduct surveillance of a member of the judiciary, ostensibly to embarrass or intimidate the judge," Friesen said.

"This is an obvious invasion of privacy and it is difficult to believe that these actions were not intended to influence the outcome of the court case," he stated. (Emphasis added.)

"The lawyers involved must be held accountable for their actions, in order to maintain public confidence in the administration of justice, to protect the integrity of our independent judiciary and uphold the rule of law in Canada," the justice minister concluded.

This would suggest Carpay's willingness to fall on his sword as soon as the exploits of the still-unnamed private dick were revealed are unlikely to prevent further scrutiny of the JCCF, a registered charity that describes itself as "a voice of freedom in Canada’s courtrooms."

The JCCF typically represents litigants associated with social conservative causes, such as defending activities by groups opposed to women's reproductive rights, challenging "the government’s health care monopoly," opposition to classroom protections for LGBTQ+ students, and more recently, pandemic public health measures that place restrictions on church services.

The names on the JCCF's "endorsements" page on its website provide an illuminating indicator of where the organization sits on Canada's political spectrum.

Carpay, long a close political ally of Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and other high-profile Conservatives in this province, has taken what the JCCF describes as "an indefinite period of leave."

Interim JCCF president Lisa Bildy responded immediately to Friesen's statement with a press release asserting spying on the judge was "a unilateral decision made by one person in the organization" and that no board member or staff lawyer other than litigation director Jay Cameron knew about it.

"These facts have been stated in court and in our public statements on the matter," she asserted. "Nevertheless…earlier today, the Manitoba attorney general called for all lawyers at the Justice Centre to be investigated by the Manitoba Law Society.

"These efforts to damage the professional reputations of our lawyers are groundless and unjustified," she complained.

"Mr. Carpay has owned this mistake and will deal with whatever flows from it. In the meantime," she continued aspirationally, "many people in this country are counting on the Justice Centre to continue its work."

In an editorial the morning after Justice Joyal's courtroom revelation, the Winnipeg Free Press newspaper argued that "hiring a PI to follow a judge -- not just any judge, but the judge handling the case that you are currently arguing in court -- suggests very few possible motivations other than an effort to intimidate the judge in order to affect the outcome of the case."

Carpay's action, said the Free Press' editorialist, "is, in no uncertain terms, an outrage. Such an assault on the judicial process cannot be allowed to go unpunished."

They say the wheels of justice turn slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine.

Perhaps we're about to see just how granular things can get. From the JCCF's perspective, the auguries do not seem promising.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald.

Image: David J. Climenhaga/Used with permission 

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