Nova Scotia

Fines could reach $57K with new penalties for breaking N.S. gathering rules

People and organizations that host gatherings in Nova Scotia that ignore public health orders will now face steep monetary penalties. Under the new rules, fines for individuals who organize or attend such events will begin at $2,422 and fines for organizations will begin at $11,622.

Province introduces new measures in wake of religious gathering that led to COVID-19 outbreaks

A mockup of a failure to comply ticket at the COVID-19 testing centre at Pearson Airport in Toronto on Wednesday, February 3, 2021. Nova Scotia has announced new fines for those who violate public health orders. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

People and organizations that host gatherings in Nova Scotia that ignore public health orders will now face steep monetary penalties.

The province announced Thursday morning that a new category of offence will see organizers held directly responsible for contravening the Health Protection Act.

The announcement comes after a religious gathering in late October resulted in transmission of COVID-19 that spread to various areas of the province and caused the deaths of three people. Organizers did not ask for proof of vaccination from those who attended, in violation of public health rules.

The pastor of the church that organized the multi-day gathering was fined $2,422 in connection with the gathering.

Under the new fine structure, first offences for individuals who organize or attend an illegal gathering will come with a $2,422 fine, and increase to $11,622 for subsequent offences.

Organizations will be fined $11,622 for the first offence and $57,622 for subsequent violations. Individuals can also face jail time.

Premier decries 'reckless behaviour'

The new fines are effective immediately.

"I don't want any more loved ones being lost due to this type of reckless behaviour," Premier Tim Houston said in a news release. 

He later told reporters he feels a single $2,422 fine was not high enough in the case of the religious gathering.

"Those that ignore the rules, there needs to be a deterrent. And the fines, as they were, were not appropriate."

Houston said the new fine amounts are the highest they can be without making legislative changes. 

N.S. Premier Tim Houston speaks with reporters on Nov. 18, 2021. Houston condemned what he called the 'reckless behaviour' of those who organized a religious gathering in late October that resulted in transmission of COVID-19 and caused the deaths of three people. (CBC)

He said the new fine levels cannot be retroactively applied to the religious gathering, but he hopes new fines can be issued in the matter — for instance, levying one for each day of the gathering, or for other individuals at the event.

The province said more than 1,375 tickets have been issued under the Health Protection and Emergency Management acts since the state of emergency began in March 2020.

On Wednesday, Houston blasted the organizers of the late-October gathering that led to the outbreaks. Robert Smith, the pastor of the Gospel Light Baptist Church, which hosted the event, has said what happened was "unfortunate," but part of God's plan.

Possible grounds for criminal charge

Dalhousie University law professor Wayne MacKay said in addition to the fine levied against the pastor, it is possible there are grounds for criminal charges, including criminal negligence.

"Now that's extremely hard to prove, but under criminal negligence, if you have a duty to do something and you either don't do it or do it inadequately or do it with … reckless disregard for the safety of others, then that can be considered criminal negligence," he said.

Conviction for that offence can come with prison time that ranges from three years to life.

MacKay said civil suits against the church or pastor are also a possibility, and would hinge on whether the actions of the church or pastor caused the alleged damage, such as death or other injuries.

With files from Information Morning