Judge reserves decision in Unifor contempt of court hearing

Justice Neil Robertson reserved his decision to a later, as-of-yet-undetermined date in a marathon contempt hearing at Regina's Court of Queen's Bench on Thursday.

Unifor has already been fined $100K for breaching court order, judge and Co-op lawyers note

Fuel trucks are lined up at entrances of the Co-op Refinery Complex on January, 20, 2020. Lawyers for the CRC are asking for a historic $1 million fine be handed to Unifor, in addition to jail time for two of its members and a daily fine of $100,000 until the union is in compliance with a court injunction. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

Justice Neil Robertson reserved his decision to a later, as-of-yet-undetermined date in a marathon contempt hearing at Regina's Court of Queen's Bench on Thursday.

Lawyers for Federated Co-operators Ltd., the organization that owns and operates the Co-op Refinery Complex, argued that two members of the Local 594 should receive jail time in addition to a "historic" $1 million dollar fine against the union representing locked out refinery employees.

The CRC is also asking for an additional $100,000 fine for each day that the union does not comply with the court order after the decision.

"The stakes are very high. People's liberties are at stake," said lawyer Crystal Norbeck, representing Unifor.

She conceded that breaches had in fact been made but the goal of has always been to return to bargaining.

In December, Justice Janet McMurtry ordered Unifor workers to only hold up fuel trucks at the refinery for a maximum of 10 minutes before they were let through.

Twenty-three affidavits, 393 minutes of video, more than 150 paper exhibits and more than 100 allegations against Unifor members were filed. 

Eileen Libby, counsel for FCL, referenced a previous decision by Justice Timothy Keene which found the union in contempt of a court order and a subsequent $100,000 fine Jan. 22.

"We know this $100,000 fine did nothing," she said. Regardless of circumstance or context, everyone must obey the law, Libby emphasized.

Included were alleged breaches of an earlier court order against two Unifor 594 members — President Kevin Bittman and Vice President Lance Holowachuk.

The allegations against Holowachuk, one of multiple vice presidents within the Local 594, stem from an interaction at the complex on Jan. 10 in which Holowachuk had been attempting to speak with a truck driver about the dispute.

The driver was not held up for more than the permitted time and did not request to pass during that interaction, Norbeck said.

Barricades, including metal fencing and wooden pallets, are blocking the Co-op Refinery Complex's Gate 7 entrance. (Ethan Williams/CBC)

It's alleged that Bittman breached and defied a previous court order when he spoke publicly in front of rallying union members in the city. 

Norbeck and her co-counsel Samuel Schonhoffer argued that Bittman's presence at the picket line and the times he spoke were not breaches. Instead, they argued that Bittman merely relayed information to the picketers.

Norbeck said Bittman wasn't the one calling the shots or making decisions. Despite being the Local 594 president, Bittman himself is a locked out employee and union member.

Libby says while Bittman did not explicitly call for any sort of action, he did in fact take credit for the blockade and endorse it when he stated the blockade would not come down until Unifor's conditions on bargaining were met.

Holowachuk could face up to 30 days in jail while Bittman could see up to 90 days. Libby argued that neither man has to go to jail. If there is jail time for someone, it's because of choices they made, she said.

Schonhoffer argued that the fine is too high and jail time would be disproportionate given the circumstances being discussed. In cases of contempt — criminal or civil — jail time is rare, he argued.

"Incarceration is the sanction of last resort," Schonhoffer said.

Unifor has also repeatedly argued that the Local 594 and the national body are separate entities and that the national body had erected a fenced blockade around the complex, not the local shop.

Justice Robertson said if that's the case, the blockade could be considered a "wholly illegal" obstruction by a third-party. Robertson said the purpose of the $100,000 fine was to ensure compliance with the order but that did not happen.

It wasn't fairies in the night that put the obstructions up, Robertson quipped at one point.

Union members gave strike notice on Dec. 3, 2019. They were locked out on Dec. 5, 2019.

With files from Adam Hunter


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.