Thunder Bay

Civil rights groups object to 'unconstitutional' emergency order in Thunder Bay

A group of civil rights organizations are calling on the Thunder Bay District medical officer of health to rescind an emergency order applying to inmates released from jail, calling it unconstitutional.
Thunder Bay District medical officer of health Dr. Janet DeMille issued an order in February, requiring inmates released from the Thunder Bay District Jail to be taken to an isolation shelter for COVID-19 assessment. (Gord Ellis/CBC)

A group of civil rights organizations are calling on the Thunder Bay District medical officer of health to rescind an emergency order applying to inmates released from jail, calling it unconstitutional.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association, HIV and AIDS Legal Clinic Ontario and Aboriginal Legal Services issued a joint media release on Monday, calling the Feb. 8 emergency order by Dr. Janet DeMille an overstep of legal authority.

That order requires all inmates released from the Thunder Bay District Jail to go directly to the designated isolation shelter for assessment and submit to COVID-19 testing. Those who are infected or deemed to be at risk of having contracted COVID-19 must remain in isolation as long as directed. If they're determined to not have an alternative or reasonable option, they have to stay at the isolation shelter.

Abby Deshman, director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association's criminal justice program, said this particular emergency order is unprecedented.

Abby Deshman is the director of the criminal justice program with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. (CBC/Skype)

"There's laws that set out what medical officers of health can and cannot do," Deshman said, adding this order goes farther than any other public health order the association has seen. 

"They just cannot go this far. It's not legal for them to issue an order requiring a certain set of people in a community be detained this way."

Outbreaks at the jail and Thunder Bay Correctional Centre were first declared in early January, with dozens of cases confirmed at each facility.

The health unit has also declared an outbreak in Thunder Bay's homeless and precariously housed population.

In a letter to DeMille, the groups raise a number of issues with the Feb. 8 emergency order, including the order not being made publicly available, citing its absence from the Thunder Bay District Health Unit (TBDHU) website, where a more recent class order is available.

Deshman said Indigenous people are going to be disproportionately impacted by the Feb. 8 order.

"The Thunder Bay jail holds a large number of Indigenous people, many of those people will be facing precarious housing and may not have a safe place to go upon release and so they're going to be disproportionately detained," Deshman said.

"These are not measures that were put in place in response to the overall public health situation in Thunder Bay. These are measures that specifically target this population. Certainly this population needs support, but that support needs to operate within the confines of the law."

Deshman said the organizations have yet to receive a response from the health unit.

"From our perspective, it's clearly unlawful," she said. "If we don't get a response soon, maybe we'll be pursuing other legal remedies."

CBC News requested a comment from the TBDHU, but was told the health unit was unable to comment at this time. 

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