The AHS logo.
The AHS logo.

While Alberta Premier Danielle Smith fulminates about Alberta Health Services (AHS)’ enforcement of public health measures during the pandemic, the Alberta Court of King’s Bench has upheld $80,000 in fines against an Edmonton church and one of its pastors for refusing entry to an AHS public health inspector six times in March and June 2021. 

In a written decision released Friday, Court of King’s Bench Justice Melanie Hayes-Richards tossed out an appeal of the judgment in its entirety, upholding both the conviction of the Church in the Vine and co-pastor Tracy Fortin and the fines of $65,000 and $15,000 levied against them.

This decision is arguably good news for the rule of law in Alberta, although it could turn out to be bad news for Alberta Health Services. 

Premier Smith has already vowed to restructure the provincial health authority, fire its governing board, and get rid of senior managers who implemented public health measures during the pandemic to slow the spread of COVID-19. While there is no way for Premier Smith to force the Court of King’s Bench to bend to her will, its decision is unlikely to dampen her determination to punish AHS and its leaders for doing their jobs. 

The church and Pastor Fortin appealed the sentence handed down by Provincial Court Judge Shelagh Creagh in July this year. They were found guilty in May by the same judge for violating the provincial Public Health Act when Pastor Fortin refused to let the inspector into the building to observe whether COVID-19 social distancing and masking rules were being obeyed. 

In her written sentencing decision in July, Judge Creagh called the actions of the church and pastor “deliberate and intentional.”

Represented by lawyer James Kitchen from a group called Liberty Coalition Canada – which describes itself as offering “a clarion Christian conservative analysis of current events to diagnose the breakdown of liberty in Canada” – Fortin and the church argued the trial judge erred when she summarily dismissed their Charter application, was personally biased by the COVID-19 pandemic and thus failed to take into account evidence pertaining to their right to religious freedom, and made other errors.

I am not a lawyer and would be loath to comment on the legal technicalities of the case, but as a layperson it seemed to me Justice Hayes-Richards demolished the appellants’ arguments one after another and wrote a decision of the sort technically known in legal circles as a “slam-dunk” for the trial judge and prosecution. 

Smith, meanwhile, has been musing in recent days that she would like to issue pardons for individuals and institutions fined for breaking pandemic restrictions as if she were a U.S. state governor. Well, perhaps she thinks she is one. 

Meanwhile, Premier Smith’s apparent determination to pursue a vendetta against AHS does not seem to extend to her justice minister, Tyler Shandro, who served the Kenney government as health minister at the time the AHS inspector was trying to get into the Church in the Vine.

Nor has it affected the standing of her health minister, Jason Copping, who was also former premier Jason Kenney’s health minister from September 2021 until Smith was sworn in as premier. 

Just last week Copping said the United Conservative Party government would consider new health measures if COVID flared up again. “You can never say never,” he told a reporter. Smith, however, said never. 

Likewise, in a shuffle of the government’s top civil servants yesterday that was made necessary by Smith’s huge new cabinet, the deputy minister of health appointed to that position in May 2021, Paul Wynnyk, was left in that role. 

So, go figure!

Also named to the post of deputy minister of agriculture and irrigation yesterday was Jason Hale, a mostly unremarkable Wildrose MLA who crossed the floor of the Legislature with Smith in December 2014 to join the Progressive Conservative Party.

Alert readers will recall that gambit did not seem to work out very well at the time.

The southern Alberta rancher was first elected in in the 2012 as the MLA for Strathmore-Brooks. He decided soon after the floor crossing not to seek re-election in the 2015 provincial election. 

According to his potted biography posted to the government’s website yesterday, Hale was once “a professional bull fighter.” 


David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...