Saskatoon

Concerns raised about Sask. practice of detaining COVID-19 patients who refuse or cannot self-isolate

Civil liberties concerns are being raised about the provincial government’s practice of detaining COVID-19 patients at a remand centre in Regina if they refuse or cannot self-isolate. Five patients have been held at the White Birch Remand Centre since a section of the women's facility was dedicated to housing patients. 

5 people have been held at the centre since it opened in early April

A section of the White Birch Remand Centre has been dedicated to housing COVID-19 patients who do not comply with a public health order that requires them to self-isolate. (Neil Cochrane/CBC)

Civil liberties concerns are being raised about the provincial government's practice of detaining COVID-19 patients at a remand centre in Regina if they refuse or cannot self-isolate. 

Five patients have been held at the White Birch Remand Centre since a section of the women's facility was dedicated to housing patients. The Ministry of Justice has said the facility is being used as a "last resort."

"In some situations people are unable to self-isolate due to lack of access to suitable accommodation. In these cases support groups including public health and social services will assist in providing the required accommodations," said the ministry in a written response to questions Friday. 

"When individuals are unwilling to voluntarily self-isolate a detention order signed by a medical health officer will be issued and police will act to detain and transport the person to an isolation centre in order to reduce the potential risk of transmitting COVID-19." 

The Ministry will not disclose where in the province the detainees were relocated from, citing privacy reasons. Further details have not been released about what the individuals did that led to detainment beyond being non-compliant. 

Province has authority to detain

The province has authority to detain people for non-compliance under section 45.1 of The Public Health Act, 1994. 

The Emergency Planning Act requires people to comply with orders issued by the chief medical health officer. It gives the RCMP authority to "take any reasonable act to enforce any order made pursuant to The Public Health Act, 1994."

A public health order violation also comes with a hefty fine. A 23-year-old woman was fined $2,800 last month after she was diagnosed with COVID-19 and refused to self-isolate, the Regina Police Service said at the time.

"There are numerous warnings given asking for individuals to self-isolate at the local community, whether it's the self-isolation centre, or trailer, or RV that we've put in place," said Marlo Pritchard, president of the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency.

"It's for those individuals that fail to comply with the local conditions and are a danger to the community." 

Pritchard said there are staff, including health workers, at the centre "24-7" and that protocols and safety measures are in place.  

Transparency about enforcement needed: B.C. Civil Liberties

Lawyers and advocates are now raising concerns about transparency and oversight, saying not enough information has been released about the detainment process.  

"During a public health emergency, it is important that we have transparent information about government procedures to enforce non-compliance," said Harsha Walia, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.  

"This situation raises many questions, such as: What is the legal threshold for non-compliance? 

"Since non-compliance of a public health order is enforceable by police, how do police and law enforcement agencies assess 'danger to public safety' and how might that be influenced by the reality of biased policing?" 

Under the legislation, people held at White Birch could challenge their detainment through an application to the Court of Queen's Bench. 

Detainees need representation: Lawyer

Pierre Hawkins is the public legal counsel for the John Howard Society of Saskatchewan. He said it is important that people understand their rights. 

"I would argue that people can only understand those rights if they are provided with legal counsel who can help to guide them through the process and can look at the situation and whether the detention is first in compliance with the public health act and second in compliance with the Charter [of Rights and Freedoms]," said Hawkins.  

Nicholas Blenkinsop is a supervising lawyer for Community Legal Assistance Services Saskatoon Inner City Inc. (CLASSIC), a non-profit poverty law clinic that offers free legal services. He said he has concerns about the lack of information surrounding the definition of a "last resort." 

"What does that really look like?" said Blenkinsop. 

"What other things have been tried, what less intrusive things have been tried, what supports have been put in place for the individuals who are eventually ending up in the White Birch [Remand] Centre, what information was given to them, how was that information given to them?"

Earlier this week, La Loche Mayor Robert St. Pierre confirmed in a message broadcast to the public that the process is now in place in his community. 

Approach is problematic, says Legal Aid lawyer

Julia Quigley is a staff lawyer with Legal Aid Saskatchewan in Regina who has previously worked in La Ronge in northern Saskatchewan. 

"To see the government tackling this issue with an iron fist is problematic when before this pandemic ever struck, and from the outset of this pandemic, they should have been providing better supports," said Quigley. 

"One of those main supports is housing. We've got a huge housing issue for people across the province but especially in our northern communities." 

She said there would be better compliance from COVID-19 patients if they were more trusting of governments.

"You have to look at colonial history here and look at the history in La Loche, where we've had crisis after crisis in recent years and I think it's understandable that people aren't trusting of the government," said Quigley.  

NDP questions why practice not disclosed earlier 

Saskatchewan NDP Leader Ryan Meili said his biggest concern is that the remand centre only became public when it was reported in the media.   

"I have questions about how they are choosing who goes in there, why they are moving people from a far distant end of the province to Regina. Are there no other ways to support people and make sure they are in a safe place but still following the public health measures?" said Meili in a news conference Friday. 

"Are they going first to the most extreme measure when there were other properties available? And again, why is this something we are only learning about because it leaks out?" 

The justice ministry said patients held at White Birch will be released when they are no longer infected. 

With files from Radio-Canada's Omayra Issa 

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