Public officials have been summoned to testify at hearings being held across the country, organizers say

A crowd of people sitting in chairs watch as a man gives a presentation on a large projector screen
People filled a room at Winnipeg’s Holiday Inn Airport West hotel on Thursday to hear expert witnesses and members of the public speak about the impact of COVID-19 policies. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

People gathered at a Winnipeg hotel Thursday to hear witnesses air grievances and share concerns over Canada’s COVID-19 response as part of a citizen-led, cross-Canada inquiry that aims to examine how governments and institutions reacted to the pandemic.

“This is a unique inquiry in many ways. It is citizen run, it is citizen funded,” said Michelle Leduc Catlin, a spokesperson for the National Citizens Inquiry into Canada’s Response to COVID-19.

“There is no one funder. This is done through people in Canada who want to hear what Canadians have experienced.”

Hearings held so far have included testimony from expert witnesses and members of the public on pandemic policies. The inquiry started in Truro, N.S., before moving to Toronto and now to Winnipeg, where the first of three days of hearings took place at the Holiday Inn Airport West Hotel on Thursday.

Witnesses questioned the decision-making and science behind public health measures such as vaccine mandates, restrictions on in-person gatherings and school closures.

A woman stands in front of a blue backdrop holding her hands together.
National Citizens Inquiry spokesperson Michelle Leduc Catlin says the citizen-led inquiry is unique. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

They also spoke out about concerns around allegations of media censorship of scientists and experts.

The inquiry was originally launched by former Reform Party leader Preston Manning, who organizers said has since stepped aside as spokesperson.

Four inquiry commissioners listened and asked questions of witnesses participating both remotely via video and in person.

During one exchange, commissioner Ken Drysdale asked Stanford University health policy Prof. Jay Bhattacharya whether risk assessments on implementing policies such as remote learning gave enough consideration to the consequences.

“You would think about a whole wide range of outcomes from a policy, not just simply the putative benefits of a policy before you adopt it,” said Bhattacharya, a critic of lockdown measures in the U.S. and a co-author of the controversial Great Barrington Declaration. It suggested building up herd immunity by allowing the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 to spread naturally, and encouraged focused protection of people at higher risk of dying from the illness.

“I think so many of those principles were thrown aside in the decision-making around COVID and COVID policy,” said Bhattacharya, who also testified as a witness during a 2021 court challenge against Manitoba’s COVID-19 restrictions launched by seven Manitoba churches.

A justice with what was then Court of Queen’s Bench rejected their argument that the restrictions violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, ruling they were necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Stefanson, Roussin summoned

The inquiry’s website says public officials, including Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson and Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin, were summoned to testify.

In a statement to CBC, the province said Roussin receives a number of invitations and declined this one.

Decisions on COVID-19 restrictions “were made based on the best available medical advice,” the province said in an email.

Patrick Allard, a vocal opponent of Manitoba’s public health measures who was fined nearly $35,000 last year for violating those measures, signed up to testify about the impact on him and his family.

A man in a grey suit and grey suit with a blue lanyard is pictured in a hallway.
Patrick Allard is a vocal opponent of public health measures who signed up to participate in the National Citizens Inquiry. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

“My ticketing during COVID protests, my arrests … I’m going to be bringing that up, I’m going to be bringing up the harms that I saw with my eyes among my own family from lockdown measures,” Allard said, noting he’s particularly concerned about the isolation his great-grandmother experienced in a nursing home. 

Rick Dyck, a People’s Party of Canada riding director in Winnipeg, said he attended because he disagreed with public health measures such as mask mandates in grocery stores.

“There was a time I went to [a grocery store] on St. James, and there was an officer there and he denied me the ability to buy food just because I wasn’t wearing a mask,” Dyck said.

“I’m glad this inquiry is happening so that we can get some accountability and to stop this from ever happening again.”

A man stands at a podium in a hotel conference room and four people sit at a table with two screens on it.
Four inquiry commissioners listened and asked questions of witnesses who participated both remotely via video and in person on Thursday. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

The hearings in Winnipeg are set to wrap up Saturday evening. The inquiry next stops in Saskatoon and is scheduled to end in Ottawa May 19.

Organizers said at the end of it all, the commissioners will put together a report with recommendations and share it publicly.

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