By Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press
WINNIPEG — Five Manitobans, including a pastor who openly defied COVID-19 restrictions, have been convicted of repeatedly violating pandemic public health orders and are to learn their sentence Thursday.
Tobias Tissen, Patrick Allard, Todd McDougall, Sharon Vickner and Gerald Bohemier admitted to breaking limits on outdoor public gatherings that were in place over several months in 2020 and 2021. Provincial court Judge Victoria Cornick convicted the five on Wednesday based on a statement of facts agreed to by their lawyers.
“All five of the individuals made a point of violating the (public health) orders in a very public way,” Crown attorney Shaun Sass said.
“They encouraged others to attend (events) and break the law.”
Tissen, a pastor at a rural church southeast of Winnipeg, has been one of several high-profile opponents to COVID-19 restrictions. He was fined for holding church services in excess of the allowable limits at the time, and was a frequent speaker at rallies against the restrictions.
The others organized or spoke at rallies, and continued to do so even after being ticketed, Sass said.
“The repeated issuing of tickets did absolutely nothing to deter these offenders.”
After the tickets, which are worth $1,296 each, continued to pile up, police arrested the five.
The Crown is seeking fines of between $18,000 and $42,000 for each person, depending on their number of offences, plus court costs and surcharges. McDougall, a citizen journalist, is on the low end with convictions on eight counts. Allard, who ran as an independent in a provincial byelection earlier this year, has the most with 14.
Defence lawyers said the Crown’s proposed fines would be unduly harsh and crushing. They asked the judge to impose a reprimand, which would not involve any fines.
“They weren’t breaking windows. They weren’t rioting in the streets,” Alex Steigerwald, who represents four of the five, told court.
“My clients stood up and protested for something they believed in.”
All five told court they have already been punished for their actions. Two said they have lost their jobs. Bohemier, 72, said the stress has harmed his health. All five spent brief periods in jail after being arrested and before being released on conditions.
“We were peacefully, publicly rejecting government overreach,” Vickner said.
Allard and McDougall have already said they plan to appeal to a higher court, where they hope to challenge the public health orders under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. They were not allowed to do so in provincial court, they said.
“We … have to finalize the whole trial in order to go forward on an appeal,” Allard said in a social media post earlier in the week.
The judge said she would render her decision on sentencing Thursday morning.
Tissen was part of a group of several churches that lost a Charter challenge last year against Manitoba’s COVID-19 restrictions on public gatherings and religious services.
A Court of Queen’s Bench judge ruled the restrictions were permissible under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as a response to a public health emergency.