Privatization of transportation blamed for delays of justice in northern Manitoba

A Winnipeg lawyer who serves clients in northern and remote communities says a 2019 decision by the province to use private airlines to fly judges, lawyers and other justice workers up north continues to lead to cancelled and delayed flights and continues to delay justice and prolong criminal cases in northern Manitoba.

“I believe very passionately that no matter where you live in this province you deserve access to justice, and people can’t just be ignored,” criminal defence lawyer Chris Sigurdson said on Wednesday.

“We can’t ignore people just because they do not live in the city.”

Back in 2019, the province made the decision to privatize the Manitoba Government Air Service, which oversaw air travel for justice workers including lawyers, prosecutors and judges travelling to northern Manitoba and to some remote communities accessible only by air.

A contract was awarded in 2019 to Exchange Income Corporation, a company that owns airlines including Calm Air, Keewatin Air, and Perimeter Aviation, to provide those services.

When the contract was announced, Ron Schuler, who was serving as Infrastructure Minister at that time, said in a media release the privatization would “reduce the number of occasions where court is rescheduled or cancelled in northern parts of our province, so the criminal justice system is administered in a timely fashion.”

But Sigurdson, who said he has been travelling north as a defence lawyer for 22 years, says it is the opposite that has played out, as he and others working in the justice system continue to deal with sudden cancellations of flights and delays in getting to northern communities since the change was made.

He added that in recent weeks and months, the cancellations have become more frequent, and that has led to long delays in dealing with trials and other court matters in the north.

“Typically when we go to these communities, we go once a month and we deal with all trials and everything that is on the docket, so we really do a whole month in one trip,” he said.

“So when flights are cancelled everything gets completely backed up.”

Sigurdson said he has watched since 2019 as the cancellations and delays have had direct and negative impacts on the people he serves, and he said the delays make it more common for those who have been released on bail to breach their bail conditions.

“They have to spend longer with the conditions in place because they are waiting for a court date to be released from the conditions, and when you have a condition in a small northern community to have no contact with someone else in the community, it’s very possible you will run into them at a store or a gathering, and then you’ve breached the condition,” Sigurdson said.

“In those communities with these delays, you are bound to have breaches.”

Sigurdson was asked if there could be any way that lawyers, judges and other court workers could use current technology to appear virtually for cases in the north, but he said many of those communities do not have the infrastructure for that to even be considered as a viable solution.

“Most northern communities don’t have proper running water, let alone phone systems, WIFI and broadband,” he said. “It would be impossible to conduct court online.”

In 2018, when the province was considering their decision to privatize the service, the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union released a report that predicted that privatization of the service, which was previously overseen by government employees, would lead to delays in administering justice in remote communities.

MGEU president Kyle Ross said on Wednesday that the predictions in that report have come true.

“This really could be used as a case study for how not to do things when it comes to privatization,” Ross said. “When services get privatized in this way it’s Manitobans that suffer, and we are seeing that clearly in the northern courts.

“It’s really frustrating when we see services that are working for Manitobans get privatized, and then the services degrade.”

Exchange Income Corporation CEO Michael Pyle said that recent delays in flights to northern Manitoba can be blamed on what he said have been ongoing pilot shortages throughout the air travel industry.

“While our contract with Manitoba Justice does not allow us to conduct live media interviews on this topic, we can confirm that like all Canadian air services providers Keewatin Air has been adversely impacted by the well-documented pilot shortage in our industry,” Pyle said. “This shortage is acute in smaller aircraft types, including those operated by Keewatin Air, as pilots have moved to larger gauge aircraft, and has particularly affected our operations in the last four months.”

The province didn't respond to a request for comment.

— Dave Baxter is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Winnipeg Sun. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.

Dave Baxter, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Sun