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COVID-19

MPs meet soldier charged with criticizing vaccine requirements while in uniform

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By Lee Berthiaume in Ottawa

A Canadian soldier charged for speaking out against COVID-19 vaccine requirements was warmly welcomed on Wednesday to Parliament Hill, where Conservative MPs posed with him for pictures before sitting through a lecture on the purported dangers of inoculations.

The show of support for James Topp came more than a month after the reservist warrant officer was charged with two counts of conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline for comments made while wearing his uniform in February.

It also came as the Afghanistan war veteran and his supporters prepare to finish a four-month march from Vancouver to the National War Memorial in Ottawa that started in February during the height of the “Freedom Convoy.”

Their planned arrival on June 30 has stoked fears of another round of such anti-vaccine and anti-government protests, which snarled the capital for weeks until police used force to end what they and the government described as an illegal occupation.

Such misgivings did not keep one group of Conservative MPs from shaking hands, posing for pictures and expressing their support for Topp during a meeting on Parliament Hill that was streamed online.

Among them were leadership candidate Leslyn Lewis as well as Dean Allison, Ryan Williams and Alex Ruff.

Topp was driven to Ottawa to meet with MPs on Wednesday and was expected to return to the area around Deep River, Ont., to continue his march to the capital in the coming days.

Appearing alongside him was Tom Marazzo, one of the spokesmen of the “Freedom Convoy,” and Paul Alexander, a former adviser to U.S. president Donald Trump who used Wednesday’s meeting to deliver a lecture on what he claims are the dangers of COVID-19 vaccines.

Health Canada says only vaccines that meet strict safety, efficacy and quality standards are approved for use in the country, and the benefits of COVID-19 vaccines continue to outweigh the risks of the disease. About 85 per cent of Canadians have received at least one dose.

Topp told the MPs that he was marching in part to get all vaccine mandates repealed, as well as the reinstatement of anyone who lost their job because of such a requirement and compensation for wages lost.

At the same time, he said his march was about much more than vaccine requirements, which were lifted for most federal civil servants this week but remain in place for members of the Canadian Armed Forces.

“One of the things that has jumped out at me since I’ve started this journey is the number of folks who have come to talk to me (and) their issue is not so much with mandates anymore,” he said.

“It’s their dissatisfaction with the federal government, they see it as intractable, inflexible and unresponsive to their needs.”

The charges against Topp relate to two videos posted online in the winter in which the army reservist appears in uniform criticizing vaccine requirements for military personnel and other federal employees.

Canadian Armed Forces members are severely restricted in the comments they can make while in uniform, particularly when it comes to criticizing government policies, in large part to protect the military from any perception of politicization.

His lawyer has argued such restrictions should not apply to policies that affect Armed Forces members personally.

While Topp sought on Wednesday to describe his mission and message as non-partisan, Marazzo, one of the leaders of a group known as Veterans 4 Freedom that organized a motorcycle convoy in April, told MPs that Canada was “going down a very dark path.”

“It’s getting critical,” Marazzo said. “(Topp) has been to a civil war. I’m not saying that that’s what’s going to happen here. But there’s a lot of similarities.”

Conservative MP Jeremy Patzer noted that only one party was represented at the long boardroom tables around which the group had gathered, telling Topp and the others: “You do have allies. You’ve had allies all along.”

Topp also said he has no plans to lead an occupation of the capital, and invited Ottawa police to work with him to facilitate his planned march through the city to the National War Memorial.

However, an organizer for Veterans 4 Freedom said in a recent video posted to YouTube that the group plans to set up a semi-permanent camp east of Ottawa called “Camp Eagle” and hold events in the city all summer.

Ottawa police have said they are planning a never-before-seen security posture for Canada Day, and that they and Gatineau police are readying further security plans for demonstrations in downtown Ottawa and Parliament Hill.

While Ottawa police will protect everyone’s right to lawfully and peacefully demonstrate, one officer said during a briefing last week, “we will not allow for the conditions that led to the unlawful protests in February to reoccur.”

Several Ottawa community groups are calling for an even stronger response to Topp’s arrival next week and any planned “freedom” demonstrations, which they allege are connected to right-wing extremism.

“It seems to me that their plan is always to sort of protect the parliamentary precinct, but they sort of just leave residential neighbourhoods there to dry,” said Sam Hersh of Horizon Ottawa.

“I want to see an acknowledgment of what this actually is from our city and from the relevant authorities: that this is a far-right movement, and that we should take it seriously. And they’re not welcome in our city.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 22, 2022.

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COVID-19

Court martial planned for soldier who criticized vaccine mandate, led march to Ottawa

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By Lee Berthiaume in Ottawa

The Canadian soldier who recently led a protest march to Ottawa is now facing a court martial for having spoken out against the federal government’s COVID-19 vaccine requirements while wearing his uniform.

Warrant Officer James Topp was recently notified that he will be allowed to have his case heard in a military court instead of by his chain of command, according to the army reservist’s civilian lawyer.

Phillip Millar says the decision represents a second about-face after the military initially offered his client a court martial when he was charged in February, only to rescind the offer and send his case to Topp’s unit commanders.

“It’s hard to know what they’re doing, because I don’t think they really know what they’re doing,” said Millar. “But now they’re saying it’s a court martial.”

The decision raises the stakes for Topp, according to military law experts, as courts martial are allowed to impose heavier sentences against Armed Forces members than if they are tried by their chain of command in what is known as a summary trial.

Yet it also means he will be allowed to have legal representation at trial, which wouldn’t have necessarily been the case if he was tried by his commanding officer, while his trial will receive much more public attention.

“The stakes are obviously going to be increased in a public-relations context,” said retired lieutenant-colonel Rory Fowler, who is now a lawyer specializing in military law in Kingston, Ont.

The Department of National Defence did not respond to questions about whether Topp’s case was changed from a court martial to summary trial and back again.

Topp was charged in February with two counts of conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline after the army reservist appeared in uniform in two online videos criticizing vaccine requirements for military personnel and other federal employees.

Canadian Armed Forces members are severely restricted in the comments they can make while in uniform, particularly when it comes to criticizing government policies, in large part to protect the military from any perception of politicization.

Topp, who is now in the process of being released from the military, later led a months-long march from Vancouver that ended in Ottawa last week and was supported by many of the same organizers as this year’s “Freedom Convoy.”

He has since become a symbol of sorts for Canadians opposed to vaccines, vaccine mandates and perceived government overreach. Some Conservative MPs have also hitched their wagon to him, including leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre.

While Millar questioned the military’s back and forth with his client, and said he planned to question the way Topp’s charges were handled, he nonetheless welcomed the latest decision to allow a court martial.

That is because Topp will now be allowed to have a lawyer present during his trial, where Millar said he plans to call expert witnesses to question the need and efficacy of the military’s vaccine requirement.

The requirement imposed by chief of the defence staff Gen. Wayne Eyre late last year remains in place even though a similar mandate for most other federal public servants has now been suspended.

“It opens the door for us to call witnesses about the decision to charge him,” Millar said. “It opens the door for us to call experts on whether or not there was any science behind the mandate.”

While the shift from a summary trial back to a court martial means Topp will be afforded an independent trial with legal representation, Fowler said it also means the army reservist faces potentially stiffer penalties if convicted.

Under a summary trial, commanding officers are largely restricted to handing down reprimands and fines. If he is found guilty by court martial, however, Topp faces the threat of dismissal from the military with disgrace and up to two years in prison.

Retired colonel Michel Drapeau said while there may be a number of reasons why the military opted to change the case from a summary trial back to a court martial, he believed the latter was the appropriate venue for hearing Topp’s case.

“It provides for a trial in an open court with all Charter legal guarantees,” Drapeau said in an email. “It also provides for the provision of free legal support to the member.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 5, 2022.

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Tamara Lich breached conditions by appearing with fellow convoy leader: Crown

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By Erika Ibrahim in Ottawa

The Crown is seeking to revoke bail for Tamara Lich, a leader of the “Freedom Convoy,” after she appeared alongside a fellow organizer in an alleged breach of her conditions.

Lich was charged in February with mischief, obstructing police, counselling others to commit mischief and intimidation for her role in the massive protest against COVID-19 restrictions that gridlocked downtown Ottawa for more than three weeks.

She was released the next month with a long list of conditions, including an order not to communicate with key convoy organizers except through counsel or in the presence of counsel. She was also banned from using all social media.

Crown prosecutor Moiz Karimjee told an Ottawa court on Tuesday that Lich breached one of her conditions by being seen with fellow protest leader Tom Marazzo at a recent gala, where she accepted an award for organizing the protest.

He argued that she should be detained.

Lich’s lawyer, Lawrence Greenspon, said he will contest the revocation of Lich’s bail and seek her release with conditions.

Ottawa police Det. Chris Benson, who is the lead on Lich’s case, told the court he reviewed video of Lich and Marazzo appearing together at the awards gala.

Greenspon asked Benson if he knew of any other evidence that Lich and Marazzo communicated before or after the brief interaction in the video, which took place in “less than three seconds.”

He asked the detective if he was aware that some lawyers from the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms were present, some of whom are acting as her lawyers in civil matters.

Benson said he believed a photograph showing Lich, Marazzo and others posing together at the award ceremony shows that she breached her conditions due to her physical closeness to him.

Lich monitored the hearing remotely from an Ontario detention centre, watching on video conference and listening in from a cellphone, her blond hair in a high bun.

Both Marazzo and Lich were key spokespeople of the winter convoy protest. Marazzo is also a leader of a group called Veterans 4 Freedom, which staged several rallies in Ottawa over the Canada Day weekend.

Police sought a Canada-wide arrest warrant for Lich for the alleged breach of her bail conditions and she was arrested last week in Medicine Hat, Alta., where she lives.

Benson said he oversaw Lich’s transport from Alberta to Ottawa after she was arrested.

Lich’s surety, whose identity is protected by a court-ordered publication ban, said they became aware of the photo of Lich and Marazzo a few days after the event, and immediately contacted Lich about it out of concern that a possible violation of bail conditions took place.

The surety explained that Lich assured them that legal counsel was present at the gala.

Greenspon pointed out the evidence brought against Lich to argue she broke the bail condition consists of a very brief congratulatory interaction between her and Marazzo, adding lawyers approved the photo and were just off-camera.

He argued Benson didn’t provide any evidence that contradicted the terms of the bail conditions.

“These actions were so minimal as to amount to not being prosecuted, let alone convicted,” he said.

The purpose of the bail condition was not to preclude the brief interaction and photo that took place, Greenspon said — rather, it was to prevent a similar event to the one that took place in Ottawa earlier this year. He argued the interactions in question do not risk reoffence.

The matter should have been brought to a judicial referral hearing or some other recourse rather than the Canada-wide warrant that has led to Lich being detained for nine days, he said, noting an email showing the Crown sought the expansion from an initial Ontario-wide warrant.

Justice of the Peace Paul Harris reserved his decision until the next court appearance on Friday.

Lich is charged for her role in the “Freedom Convoy” along with a co-accused, Chris Barber, who remains out on bail.

On Tuesday morning, Barber’s lawyer was granted a publication ban on court documents showing Barber’s cellphone communications, except for those with Lich.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 5, 2022.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

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