Public Safety officers in northwest New Brunswick have started issuing tickets to members of an anti-mask group who gathered at a private home last weekend in defiance of the province's mandatory COVID-19 order.
Tony Dave Marchand said officers arrived at his home in Sainte-Anne de Madawaska late Tuesday afternoon.
A five-minute Facebook video of Marchand confronting six officers last Friday has gone viral in the northwest, prompting some to complain that law enforcement isn't doing enough to crack down on rule-breakers in Zone 4.
"It's no longer time for 'raising awareness' and 'education.' It's time for the government to enforce the law," Madawaska Les Lacs-Edmundston Liberal MLA Francine Landry said early Tuesday afternoon.
Even Health Minister Dorothy Shephard seemed concerned.
"It is my hope that with our Public Safety partners, we would be addressing serious situations like that," she said.
Within hours of those comments, officers arrived at Marchand's home and at the private home that hosted the gathering last Friday.
Zone 4 continues to post the vast majority of new COVID-19 cases in the province, a stubborn trend that has persisted despite red-zone restrictions that took effect March 25 and a full lockdown that started April 11.
As of Tuesday, 100 of the 139 active cases in New Brunswick were in Zone 4, and 37 per cent of all cases since the pandemic began were there.
In an interview Marchand, who rejects the overwhelming scientific evidence about COVID-19 and vaccines, said he knew the gathering violated the province's emergency pandemic order.
"I knew it was. Definitely I knew it was. But in the end I knew it wasn't illegal what I was doing, because of the Charter [of Rights] that protects us."
In the video, six officers arrive at the home, including provincial enforcement officers and two RCMP members. Marchand meets them outside and they tell him they're acting on a complaint based on Section 30 (k) of the emergency order.
It bans indoor or outdoor gatherings "associated with socializing, celebration, ceremony or entertainment."
In the video, recorded by one of the people at the gathering, Marchand argues with the officers for five minutes, claiming they have no legal authority.
"There's no criminal violation," he tells them, stating incorrectly that "the only time you have a right to do this is with a warrant from a judge."
In fact, the provincial Emergency Measures Act gives the government sweeping powers, including the authority to direct police to enter a property without a warrant.
Many legal scholars believe that would survive a charter challenge under Section 1, which allows "reasonable limits" on individual freedoms.
Marchand said about 15 people were at the gathering. He said they're anti-mask activists who were blocked by police from protesting lockdown measures in Edmundston the previous weekend and ticketed.
"The gathering was to educate people that they have the right to contest their fines," he said.
The officers asked for the names of everyone at the home but Marchand refused to provide them. They left with only his name. The group cheered as they left.
Marchand said, however, that one of the officers was taking down licence plate numbers during the discussion, and that will allow them to issue tickets to other people at the gathering.
As of Wednesday morning, only he and the owner of the home had been fined, but he said he expected others to be ticketed during the day.
Incident 'under investigation'
On Tuesday, the provincial Department of Public Safety refused to discuss the circumstances in the video.
"This matter is still under investigation and we are unable to comment further on this particular incident," said spokesperson Coreen Enos.
She did not immediately respond Wednesday to a request for confirmation that tickets were being issued.
Marchand intends to contest his ticket in court but said he will refuse to wear a mask and it's up to the court to deal with that.
"If you can't find an alternative, that's not our problem. That becomes the court's problem."
In a emailed statement, RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Hans Ouellette said the force "has taken, and continues to take, a measured approach to encourage and promote compliance" with COVID-19 restrictions.
"Police officers are using their discretion in all situations related to COVID-19," Ouellette said. "Tickets are issued and other enforcement actions are being taken when appropriate."
Marchand said he refuses to wear a mask because he is asthmatic and suffers from other conditions that make it difficult to wear one.
He said he's only able to shop for necessities in some local convenience stores who have been letting him enter without one. He would not identify the stores.
Landry said she has received many calls from constituents about the video.
"People are very frustrated by these very, very few individuals who are not obeying and following the rules," she said.
Marchand said no one in the group has had COVID-19.