Head of group representing churches in COVID-19 challenge takes leave after having Manitoba judge followed

·4 min read
John Carpay said Tuesday he is stepping aside as president of the Alberta-based Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, saying the decision to hire a private investigator to surveil a Manitoba judge was all his own. (CBC - image credit)
John Carpay said Tuesday he is stepping aside as president of the Alberta-based Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, saying the decision to hire a private investigator to surveil a Manitoba judge was all his own. (CBC - image credit)

The president of a group representing multiple churches across the country fighting COVID-19 public health orders in court is taking indefinite leave after admitting he hired private investigators to follow both a judge presiding over the case in Manitoba and some senior government officials.

The board of the Alberta-based Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF) said Tuesday morning that the group's founder and president, Calgary-based lawyer John Carpay, was taking an indefinite leave, effective immediately.

"Surveilling public officials is not what we do. We condemn what was done without reservation," the board said in a release, apologizing to Chief Justice Glenn Joyal of the Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench "for the alarm, disturbance, and violation of privacy.

"All such activity has ceased and will not reoccur in future."

Joyal said on Monday morning he'd been tailed by a private investigator in an attempt to catch him breaking COVID-19 rules in order to embarrass him while he presides over a court challenge related to the province's lockdown measures.

Joyal revealed the information during a hearing for the case, which was brought forward by seven rural Manitoba churches represented by the JCCF.

The Canadian Press
The Canadian Press

Carpay later said it was his organization that had retained the private investigator to follow Joyal as part of its efforts to hold government officials accountable, although he said it was not an attempt to influence the decision in the case.

He also said the organization had hired private investigators to follow a number of other public officials in order to catch them breaking public health regulations.

Carpay apologized Monday for the error in judgment.

Jay Cameron, another lawyer representing the JCCF in the court challenge, became aware of the surveillance a few weeks ago and also apologized to Joyal on Monday.

During the virtual hearing, Joyal said he realized he was being followed by a vehicle on Thursday when leaving the Manitoba Courts building in downtown Winnipeg and driving around the city.

He said the private investigator even followed him to his private residence and had a young boy ring his doorbell while he wasn't home in an attempt to confirm where he lives. The private investigator also followed him to his cottage, Joyal said.

Joyal said it would not influence his decision in the case, but said it would be "unthinkable" to not share it with the court because of its potential implications in the administration of justice.

He said the surveillance of his home and intrusion of his privacy raise serious concerns about the privacy and safety of judges generally. This type of activity could also be seen as obstruction of justice, either direct or indirect, he said.

"I am deeply concerned that this type of private investigative surveillance conduct could or would be used in any case involving any presiding judge in a high-profile adjudication," he said.

At the beginning of the hearing, Joyal said he did not know who hired the private investigation agency and that it refused to reveal that information. He also said Winnipeg police were investigating.

The JCCF board also said Tuesday that an interim president would be appointed, and that there would be a review of operations and decision-making at the organization.

'This is just not done'

Ottawa human rights lawyer Richard Warman has filed a complaint with the law societies of Manitoba and Alberta about the incident.

"It's probably the most egregious case of professional misconduct that I've heard of in quite some time," he said.

"Any lawyer found to have been involved in this should face the most severe sanctions possible, up to and including disbarment. This is just not done."

Eric Adams, professor and vice dean with the law faculty at the University of Alberta, says it's likely Carpay committed a number of breaches of the provincial law society's code of conduct which could see him reprimanded, fined or even disbarred.

"Lawyers across Canada were shaking our heads in disbelief," Adams said. "The [code of conduct] specifically says that a lawyer can't hire anyone to try and influence a court or judge."

WATCH | Lawyer takes leave after admitting he had judge followed:

Toronto-based charity lawyer Mark Blumberg said Carpay's actions could have negative consequences for the JCCF's status as a registered charity.

"A very basic concept is that a Canadian registered charity in Canada operating here is not allowed to break the law," he said.

"You get a lot of benefits to be a charity and with that comes certain obligations. It's sort of like a deal between society and government that you will be able to be a charity but you will also have to comply with a number of different requirements."

Blumberg says it's vital for the charity sector to have public trust, and incidents like this can undermine that.

Carpay is a former provincial director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

He has previously made headlines for comparing Nazi swastikas to LGBTQ pride flags, and challenging gay-straight alliances — peer-support groups that are meant to tackle bullying and provide supportive environments for LGBTQ students — as "ideological sexual clubs."

In 2017, Premier Jason Kenney compared Carpay's work to that of civil rights icon Rosa Parks, but has since condemned remarks made by Carpay.

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