By The Canadian Press
WINNIPEG — The co-president of a church-affiliated post-secondary college in Manitoba has defended a graduation ceremony that has drawn criticism after photos emerged online showing graduates on a stage without masks.
Leon Fontaine, who is also a senior pastor with Springs Church, told a drive-in service on Saturday posted online that all 18 students have been part of the same cohort from orientation to graduation, and that all were physically distanced on the stage and were in compliance with Manitoba’s public health orders.
He says the ceremony was shot in one of the church’s TV studios and was broadcast on a big-screen TV for attendees to watch in their cars.
Fontaine says the pictures that were posted did not show the physical separation well.
Families Minister Rochelle Squires stated in a tweet that as a former member of Springs Church, she was deeply disappointed that the event took place against public health orders.
Springs Church also faced controversy last year for holding drive-in services while there were restrictions on public gatherings and in-person religious events.
“Throughout the commencement shoot, students were seated, physically distanced, even at the end when they were called to the stage. These students were staggered and physically distanced,” Fontaine told his drive-in congregation on Saturday.
“Unfortunately, the pictures that were posted did not show this physical separation well. There was no requirements for students to wear masks during classes throughout the year, nor to wear masks for a final picture, because they were physically distanced as a cohort group,” he continued.
“Unfortunately some pictures with no context led to a lot of misunderstandings.”
Premier Brian Pallister declined to comment on the situation on Saturday, saying he had only just learned about the photos.
“Obviously if there were violations, I would expect there to be consequences for that, and it would be most unfortunate,” Pallister said.
Audrey Gordon, minister for mental health, wellness and recovery, said in a tweet Saturday that she, like many Manitobans, was “very disappointed” to learn of the graduation ceremony.
“Anyone who chooses not to follow public health orders is disrespecting their family, their friends, their community and the front-line health care workers who are doing everything in their power to care for those in need,” Gordon wrote.
Indoor gatherings have been prohibited for some time in the province, including community, cultural and religious gatherings, as Manitoba attempts to quell a surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.
Effective Saturday, the Progressive Conservative government tightened restrictions for the fourth time in the past month by banning virtually all social gatherings, even outdoors, although that does not apply to gatherings in motor vehicles.
The order also exempts parts of facilities used by public or private schools, if they are used for instructional purposes.
Fontaine said Springs Church takes Manitoba’s public health restrictions seriously and has done everything it can in the past 14 months to comply with them.
“Countless hours are spent interpreting and implementing new weekly Manitoba health orders. Members of the public were not put at risk at any time as a result of the virtual college graduation,” he said.
Manitoba reported 461 new COVID-19 cases and one additional death on Sunday. Its five-day test-positivity rate is 14.5 per cent provincially and 16.7 per cent in Winnipeg.