HURON COUNTY – Stephen and Joanne Hill, owners of Buck and Jo’s Restaurant in downtown Wingham, will have to wait a bit longer to hear the verdict on several charges alleging failure to comply with a Section 22 order issued by the region’s medical officer of health on Nov. 5, 2021.
Huron Perth Public Health (HPPH) issued the Section 22 order after public health officials conducted inspections at businesses in North Huron in late October 2021. Their focus was on requirements under the province’s Reopening Ontario Act.
HPPH went to this specific location after receiving several complaints, according to testimony at the trial.
A press release from HPPH in November 2021 states, “Under Section 22 of the Health Protection and Promotion Act, a Medical Officer of Health can issue an order to ‘require a person to take or to refrain from taking any action in respect of a communicable disease.’”
The couple appeared for trial at the Huron County Courthouse in Goderich on Jan. 12 to answer to the charges before a Justice of the Peace.
Hill, dressed in a black T-shirt with a Canadian flag and the words “I’m taking my country back” printed on it, represented himself and his wife at the trial with no legal counsel present.
Hill maintains that the restaurant was indeed closed since receiving the Section 22 order on Nov. 5, 2021, only opening for a small window on Nov. 12, 2021 to host a support rally and meet the HPPH officers who were scheduled to come for a compliance inspection.
HPPH upholds that the business being open on Nov. 12, 2021 for any amount of time justifies the order.
HPPH Public Health Inspector Patrick Landry, one of the attending officers at the Josephine Street restaurant, testified that on his first visit the restaurant appeared to comply with most COVID-19 protocols that were in force at that time, such as masking signs being posted, barriers on booths and plexiglass at the business counter, Hill stated that he would not be asking for proof of vaccination nor inspecting people’s identification.
“I could tell he was not happy,” Landry said. “He was using words like ‘segregation’ and repeatedly stated he was unwilling to comply.”
On Nov. 12, 2021, Landry, accompanied by co-worker Chris Boyes, who was present at all three inspections, attended the location to “follow up” on the order, as this was the “due date.”
Boyes, who testified after Landry, said, “We arrived at 10:15 a.m. and there was a crowd of people outside [the restaurant]. Mr. Hill was preventing us from entering and demanding our proof of vaccination and identification,” which they are not required to do.
Boyes said that they asked Hill if they could see his COVID-19 safety plan, another requirement for businesses at that time, but Hill refused to provide it, instead saying it was inside on the wall if the inspectors wanted to see it.
Boyes said that loud jeering and yelling from the small crowd of about 20 people made it difficult to hear. Additionally, there were people inside the restaurant, some banging on the plate glass window surrounding the dining area.
Hill’s physical demeanor was intimidating, Boyes said.
“He’s a large man, and he had a large hunting knife attached to his hip,” said Boyes.
They were denied entry to the restaurant because they refused to show their identification, instead providing their work lanyards identifying them as HPPH inspection officers.
Boyes mentioned the crowd, some recording the confrontation with their phones, were “in my face” with their cameras. He feared that Hill might “dox” him – publish private or identifying information about a particular individual on the internet, typically with malicious intent – if he got hold of his home address, which could put his family in danger.
Hill has repeatedly shared North Huron councillors’ home addresses and phone numbers on social media. Hackers and online vigilantes routinely dox both public and private figures, which is not illegal if the information is general knowledge and obtained legally.
Hill did not submit any evidence proving the restaurant was closed, stating that it would be impossible to provide in a hard copy form. Instead, Hill opted to submit video clips, previously posted online, that he took during four visits from HPPH inspectors.
The clips appeared to verify the situation the HPPH officers described, and also appeared to contradict Hill’s defence that the officers did not answer his questions. Furthermore, Landry could clearly be heard several times saying that HPPH would not be providing manpower to Buck and Jo’s Restaurant to “check vax passes and ID.”
Hill maintains that HPPH officers refused to answer his questions.
The video clips also showed that the HPPH officers were repeatedly interrupted and disrespected by Hill and his supporters, making the situation volatile and unsafe.
The Justice of the Peace repeatedly warned Hill, the HPPH lawyer, and the witnesses who testified to stop talking over each other and remain professional.
Hill demanded several times during the day to know who provided the information that led to the HPPH press release that was issued on Nov. 12. In his final submission, he once again turned around to glare at the HPPH officers and told them that the press release “destroyed our business and our reputation.”
In response, the JP said, “Address me, Mr. Hill. They are done. I’m the one you have to convince.”
Hill said, “I can’t prove I was closed. My attitude has nothing to do with this. I believe I was acting in good faith; we shut down so we didn’t have to comply.”
The trial is over, but the verdict is still up in the air as the Justice of the Peace needs to review the tapes and the trial transcripts more in-depth before making a decision.
An online court appearance on Jan. 31 will determine when a verdict will be announced.
Cory Bilyea, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Wingham Advance Times