Manitoba

Winnipeg's Springs Church faces backlash for maskless graduation photos, pastor says they followed rules

A Winnipeg church that has repeatedly flouted public health orders held a gathering of recent graduates without masks — which appears to be a violation of Manitoba's current pandemic restrictions.

2 PC cabinet ministers with ties to church release statements in support of public health orders

Families Minister Rochelle Squires tweeted this photo from a Springs Church Instagram post, which shows a graduation ceremony that appears to be in violation of provincial public health orders. (Rochelle Squires/Twitter)

A Winnipeg church that has repeatedly flouted public health orders held a gathering of recent graduates without masks — which appears to be a violation of Manitoba's current pandemic restrictions.

Springs Church posted a series of photos on Instagram Friday, one of which showed more than a dozen people dressed in formal attire standing on a stage.

"We are so proud of this years @springscollege graduates!" the now-deleted post reads.

Screengrabs of the pictures circulated on social media shortly after, prompting criticism of the church.

Late Saturday night, the church released a statement saying it had not broken any restrictions with its drive-thru ceremony, but the photos it had posted created "misunderstandings." The church says 18 students were allowed to gather because they are part of a cohort.

Springs College is a full-time program for students age 18 to 25, and offers both a biblical studies program and a leadership and management program, its website says. 

It is not designated as an educational institution by the province.

Current public health orders, in effect since May 9, prohibit all indoor religious, cultural and community gatherings in the province.

Manitobans have been urged to stay home and avoid gatherings, as the province grapples with a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases during its third pandemic wave.

PC minister says 'no evidence' she was at grad ceremony

Audrey Gordon, the Progressive Conservative government's minister for mental health, posted a statement on her own Twitter account Saturday afternoon about Springs Church.

Gordon has previously said she is a member of the church.

"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.

On Facebook, Gordon wrote that several posts have claimed she was present at the ceremony, but to her knowledge no evidence had been presented to substantiate the claim.

The Legislative Assembly sat from 1:30 p.m. to about 10:45 p.m. the day of the graduation and all 57 MLAs, including Gordon, were present for the session, she wrote, adding that the information could be verified by the public.

CBC News contacted Gordon's spokesperson for clarification. Brant Batters said the minister's statement was "very clear," but confirmed she did not attend any in-person ceremony at Springs nor any related events before or after.

Batters also said that Gordon was not aware of the event ahead of time. He would not say whether the minister was still a member of Springs Church, saying her personal faith background is irrelevant.

As of Sunday morning, Gordon's Facebook account is no longer active.

In a Saturday Facebook post, Audrey Gordon says there is no proof that she attended the Springs Church graduation. As of Sunday, the PC cabinet minister's Facebook is no longer active. (Facebook/Audrey Gordon for Southdale)

Premier not commenting

When asked about Springs Church during an unrelated press conference late Saturday morning, Premier Brian Pallister said he had only just become aware of the gathering.

The premier said if there were violations, there should be consequences, but declined to offer further comment.

Families Minister Rochelle Squires, however, took to Twitter on Saturday morning to denounce the gathering.

"As a former member of this church I am deeply disappointed that this event took place against public health orders," she wrote.

"Everyone has a duty to do their part and keep one another safe. Not only is this risky behaviour but [it] also sends a wrong message to our youth."

Photos, originally posted to Springs Church's Instagram account, have now been deleted. They continue to circulate online. (Imgur/MBGoose)

A spokesperson for the province would not say Saturday whether Springs was facing any fines.

'Slap in the face' to other graduating Manitobans

Shortly after the photos began circulating on social media Friday night, many took to social media to criticize Springs, including parent Jodi Lee from Portage la Prairie. Instead of taking part in a gathering with his peers, her son will likely receive his diploma in the mail.

"I showed him the pictures and he just shook his head and he said, 'How is this fair, mom?'"

"It's just a blatant slap in the face to every other grad," Lee said.

"There seems to be different rules for different people, and just a complete disregard for the health orders that we're all trying to follow."

Darren Day, a University of Winnipeg student, grew up in an Evangelical church in Winkler, Man. 

"There was a time of life where I might have done something like that. I might have been like, 'Screw this, church is more important. I should be with my community,' Day said.

He said what Springs is doing contradicts Christian values.

"It shows, unfortunately, a disconnect to what's going on, a lack of compassion, and also maybe a bit of privilege," he said.

Winnipeg City councillor Markus Chambers said on Saturday the province needs to investigate and issue fines.

"For there to be such defiance, I don't know how they're justifying it," he said. 

Springs Church responds

Spring Church pastor Leon Fontaine released a written and video statement late Saturday night saying the graduation photos had led to "misunderstandings."

During the last days of classes May 20, the 18 graduating students went into a TV studio on campus and taped the commencement proceedings, Fontaine said.

The church broadcasted the video on a screen in its parking lot, where people could watch from their cars. 

Students were staggered and physically distanced throughout the ceremony, and therefore didn't need to wear masks, the pastor said.

"Unfortunately, the pictures that were posted did not show this physical separation well," Fontaine said.

CBC News has sent messages to Springs Church for an interview but has not received a response.

In Manitoba, all indoor religious gatherings have been prohibited since May 9. Masks are required inside educational facilities under current Code Red restrictions.

Kindergarten to Grade 12 schools in Winnipeg have been in remote learning since May 12, and post-secondary institutions have been mostly learning online this school year.

Private indoor gatherings have also been limited to only household members since late April.

A drive-in service at Springs Church on Lagimodiere Boulevard in November, held in contravention of provincial public health orders. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

Church previously fined for violations

Springs Church, which is located on Lagimodiere Boulevard just north of Fermor Avenue in Winnipeg, has a history of breaking public health orders during the pandemic.

As of last December, the church and two of its pastors had been fined more than $32,000 for allowing drive-in services in its parking lot, in violation of provincial public health orders aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19.

The church also went to court late last year, seeking an application that would allow it to hold services in its parking lot and asking for an interim stay of a provincial public health order prohibiting in-person religious gatherings.

Court of Queen's Bench Justice Glenn Joyal ruled against the church, saying the orders "necessarily restrict rights ... in order to prevent death, illness and the overwhelming of the public health system in Manitoba."

Dozens of Manitoba clergy have also spoken out against Springs in the past, saying that congregation's actions are not in line with Christian teachings to love your neighbour.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Marina von Stackelberg is a CBC journalist based in Winnipeg. She previously worked for CBC in Halifax and Sudbury. Connect with her @CBCMarina or marina.von.stackelberg@cbc.ca

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