Public safety minister grilled over quarantine hotel security after alleged assaults

·4 min read

OTTAWA — Public Safety Minister Bill Blair faced harsh questions Wednesday over security related to the federal quarantine program after reports of two incidents of alleged sexual assault.

At a parliamentary committee hearing, Conservative MP Shannon Stubbs grilled Blair over safeguards for guests at federally approved quarantine hotels.

She also questioned him about background checks for screening officers who work at the hotels and conduct compliance checks at homes of Canadians quarantined due to COVID-19.

Blair told the committee that quarantine measures have been effective and that any allegations should be thoroughly investigated.

He diverted questions on the hotel quarantine program to the Public Health Agency of Canada that oversees it, saying he has no jurisdiction over the file and that Stubbs is "simply misinformed" on his role.

"Thank you for the condescension," Stubbs replied.

"I do expect though that almost every single Canadian would hope that the minister of public safety of this country would ... ensure that Canadians are safe and secure within facilities or at home trying to comply with rules that the federal government has set."

A government order that took effect Feb. 22 requires all non-essential travellers entering Canada by air to stay at a federally approved hotel for up to three nights at the start of a 14-day quarantine.

Police have arrested two men accused of sexual assault related to quarantine measures, one at a Montreal hotel and another tied to a compliance check in Oakville, Ont.

The latter case involved a quarantine screening officer who allegedly demanded cash from a woman before sexually assaulting her at her home, and who now faces related charges, Halton regional police said last month.

The accused had been trained by the Public Health Agency of Canada as a designated screening officer under the Quarantine Act, police said.

Trained screening officers working for four security companies under contract with the agency began in-person compliance visits on Jan. 29 in Montreal and Toronto, it said.

At the public safety committee hearing Wednesday evening, Stubbs asked Blair whether the government carries out security checks on screening officers beyond any done by their employers.

"Operators have been telling single women not to tell people of their location and to leave their doors unlocked, and that in some cases there are no locks on the doors within those quarantine facilities at all," Stubbs said.

“Where there’s an allegation, that has to be thoroughly investigated," Blair said.

“The operation of the designated quarantine facilities is entirely under the authority of the Public Health Agency of Canada. I actually have no jurisdiction over those matters," he stated, adding that the RCMP plays a supporting role.

The government's quarantine measures have hit turbulence outside of alleged criminal incidents.

The hiccups range from reports of 10-hour phone waits to book rooms to overcrowded hotels with delayed meal service and dietary restrictions for some guests going unmet.

Travellers pay up to $2,000 for the accommodations and can leave once a COVID-19 test taken at the airport comes back negative, though no discount attends a shorter stay.

Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel Garner repeatedly asked Health Minister Patty Hajdu on Wednesday whether the government has data showing that hotel quarantines are more effective in preventing spread of COVID-19 variants than at-home isolation coupled with pre- and post-arrival testing.

Hajdu avoided answering the question directly, prompting a back-and-forth that culminated in Liberal MP Angelo Iacono accusing Rempel Garner of acting like “a bit of a bully."

"I would argue that the woman who experienced sexual assault at the quarantine hotel due to this lack of data would in fact be the woman who would have experienced bullying," Rempel Garner replied.

Hajdu told the committee that Ottawa opted for the quarantine hotels "to make sure that people have a safe place to stay" while they receive results from tests taken at the airport.

A constitutional rights advocacy group announced this week it is mounting a legal challenge to Ottawa's hotel quarantine policy, arguing it infringes on Canadians' fundamental rights.

The Canadian Constitution Foundation has filed an application with Ontario's Superior Court of Justice along with five individuals, seeking an end to the policy. The application names the Attorney General of Canada as the defendant.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 10, 2021.

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press