WINNIPEG — Manitoba’s top doctor told a court challenge of the province’s public health rules Friday that restrictions on faith-based gatherings had to be imposed because health care was being overwhelmed during the pandemic’s second wave.
Seven churches are fighting public health orders meant to stem the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
“We could not be wrong,” Dr. Brent Roussin testified in Court of Queen’s Bench. “We had to limit places we knew transmission was going to occur because our hospitals were full.”
Roussin, chief public health officer, told court there were numerous clusters of infections linked to faith-based gatherings before churches were closed down last November.
At the time, non-essential stores were also shuttered and group gatherings banned as cases surged and a deadly wave of infections swept through long-term care homes.
“Our hospitals were full of COVID-19 patients. Our ICUs were full of COVID-19 patients,” Roussin testified.
“We had to act on the trends we were seeing. We were in crisis.”
Roussin, who has a medical and a law degree on top of a master of public health, has been the face of Manitoba’s response since the beginning of the pandemic.
The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, a Calgary-based group representing the churches, has said Manitoba’s public health rules are unjustified violations of charter-protected freedoms.
The churches are arguing their right to worship and assemble has been violated by the restrictions, which has led to “a crisis of conscience, loneliness and harm to their spiritual well-being.”
Public health orders targeting churches were loosened in January. Worship services are currently restricted to 10 people or 25 per cent capacity, whichever is less, and everyone is required to wear a mask.
Government lawyers have told court it’s within the bounds of the legislature to grant the chief public health officer authority to impose reasonable rules.
Jared Brown, a lawyer for the churches, questioned if the application of public health orders was fair, whether enforcement was applied evenly and if the restrictions were successful.
“Shutting down churches has not stopped community spread,” Brown said.
Roussin said cases dropped after the restrictions came into place. But he agreed that community transmission is still taking place and added the more infectious variants have brought new challenges.
The Manitoba government reported 502 new COVID-19 cases Friday, the highest one-day count since the pandemic’s second wave. Health officials said they are adding intensive care beds to prepare for a surge of hospitalizations.
Brown spent much of his cross-examination asking Roussin about studies, data collection and the efficacy of the PCR test, one of the main ones used to detect the virus.
Roussin said PCR tests have been important to understand what is happening in the community. Seven per cent of positive cases show up in hospital about 10 days later.
He told court there would be severe economic and societal consequences if COVID-19 were allowed to spread unchecked.
Roussin testified that hospitals fill up and more health-care workers are out sick when there’s significant community infection. It can mean serious problems even for people who don’t have the virus but need health services.
He said that the goal with public health orders is to keep people safe, avoid deaths as much as possible and minimize social disruption. The province is still studying some of the unintended or unexpected consequences of the orders, he added.
Roussin told court many physicians and nurses have called for even tighter restrictions.
“I’m bound by using the least restrictive means.”
The constitutional challenge is one of the latest attempts by churches across the country to quash pandemic restrictions on faith gatherings.
The Justice Centre has filed similar challenges in Alberta and British Columbia.
In Alberta, a pastor accused of violating public health orders was on trial earlier this week.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 7, 2021.
Kelly Geraldine Malone, The Canadian Press
Biden nominates Cindy McCain to UN food and agriculture post
President Joe Biden is nominating Cindy McCain to be the U.S. representative to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture, one of 17 nominations announced Wednesday that included major diplomatic and arts assignments.
McCain, the widow of Arizona Sen. John McCain, broke with Republicans and endorsed Biden for president, making her a key surrogate for the Democrat after Donald Trump spent years criticizing her husband. McCain is the chair and director of the Hensley Beverage Company, a Phoenix-based distributor of beer, wine, spirits and nonalcoholic drinks.
The president is also nominating Massachusetts state Rep. Claire Cronin to be ambassador to Ireland. Biden frequently emphasizes his Irish heritage and has stressed the U.S. support of the Good Friday Agreement, which provided for peace with Northern Ireland but has come under stress after the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union.
Michael Carpenter, managing director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement at the University of Pennsylvania, is being nominated to represent the U.S. to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Jack Markell, a former Delaware governor, is being nominated to represent the U.S. to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
The president also announced nominations to the National Council on the Arts, including Fiona Whelan Prine, widow of the singer-songwriter John Prine and president of Oh Boy Records, the country’s second-oldest independent record label still in operation.
Josh Boak, The Associated Press
O’Toole against cancelling Canada Day; ministers, NDP say it’s time for reflection
OTTAWA — Federal politicians are faced with the country’s legacy of residential schools as July 1 approaches, with the Conservative leader railing against calls to cancel Canada Day, while Liberal ministers and the NDP leader say it should be a time of reflection.
Leader Erin O’Toole says Conservatives are committed to a renewed nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous Peoples, but stands firm against so-called activist efforts to “cancel” Canada, particularly on the national holiday.
O’Toole offered his insights on the moment the country finds itself in to members of his caucus and staff gathered in Ottawa before the House of Commons breaks for summer.
He called the discovery in British Columbia of what are believed to be the remains of 215 Indigenous children from a former residential school “a necessary awakening for our country.”
O’Toole pledged that a government led by him would be dedicated to a renewed relationship with Indigenous Peoples, as speculation swirls that the minority Parliament may be headed toward an election.
The Conservative leader said the road to repairing the country’s relationship with Indigenous Peoples and better equality doesn’t involve attempts to destroy Canada.
“I’m concerned that injustices in our past, or in our present, are too often seized upon by a small group of activist voices who use it to attack the very idea of Canada itself,” he said.
Standing up to cancel culture and the “radical left” was part of the platform O’Toole ran on to win the party’s leadership last summer, where he billed himself as the “true blue” candidate to the Conservative faithful.
He’s also been trying to modernize some of the party’s positions and broaden its support base to include more people, including those who are Indigenous.
Like other federal party leaders, O’Toole has in recent weeks had to respond to the discovery of the unmarked burial site in late May and renewed demands for the government to make better progress on calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Canada Day, known for its fireworks, festivities and flapping Canadian flags, has in recent years become viewed with apprehension in some quarters, as more people reckon with the country’s colonial past and the harm it caused Indigenous communities.
The focus on unmarked burial sites at residential schools has pushed those feelings further. Where before some called for Canada Day celebrations to be boycotted, some organizers decided it was best to cancel.
St. Albert, a city northwest of Edmonton, said it wouldn’t have a Canada Day fireworks show because it was to be held on the site of a former residential school.
City councillors in Victoria also announced it would forgo its holiday broadcast to instead host another event later in the summer, where people could reflect on what it means to be Canadian.
At a press conference Wednesday, federal Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller says he himself has mixed feelings about Canada Day. He drew on his own experience being from Quebec to say he knows the national holiday can be controversial, and is not universally celebrated.
For himself, he said, it’s a time of reflection and a chance to look at “what we are as a country.”
“The flags are still lowered to continue to commemorate the children that were stolen from their communities and taken to residential schools. Those wounds are still very much open in Indigenous communities,” Miller said.
Appearing virtually alongside Miller was Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett, who agreed the holiday should be used to think about Canada’s ugly past.
She said the summer itself will be a time for people to wrestle with the country’s racist wrongdoings, as Canada prepares to mark its first statutory holiday remembering the legacy of residential schools on September 30.
“On Canada Day I will be wearing an orange shirt,” said Bennett.
New Democratic Party Leader Jagmeet Singh says people are looking at Canada Day differently this year.
“It does us a disservice when we ignore the injustice, we ignore the bad parts of our history and the ongoing legacy and the impact of those horrible things that have happened and continue to happen,” he said.
O’Toole, for his part, spoke out against calls from some to cancel Canada Day celebrations and singled out the actions of activists and those “always seeing the bad and never the good.”
“As someone who served Canada and will soon ask for the trust to lead this country, I can’t stay silent when people want to cancel Canada Day.”
O’Toole, who served in the military for 12 years, says he’s proud to be a Canadian, as are millions of others. He suggested that collectively, people use the pain felt from where Canada has failed in the past to build a better home.
“We are not a perfect country. No country is. There is not a place on this planet whose history can withstand close scrutiny.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 23, 2021.
Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press
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