John Carpay may not be a household name, but you’ve likely heard about some of the causes pushed by the freedom-fighting, controversy-courting Alberta lawyer.
Remember the Nova Scotia man who fought to keep his namesake vanity licence plate: “Grabher?” That was Carpay’s case.
Heard about the free speech “crisis” on university campuses? He’s been trumpeting that for years.
During this pandemic, Carpay and his colleagues at the registered charity and legal advocacy organization he founded, the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, have railed against COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions, insisting coronavirus “isn’t the unusually deadly killer” it’s been made out to be.
To his supporters, Carpay is principled and smart, a “daredevil” who takes positions that go against the current zeitgeist.
His detractors label him and his organization as an American-style advocacy group that’s latched onto legal cases in Canada in a way that stokes culture wars and political division.
But his latest exploit, friends and foes seem to agree, may have gone too far. Carpay, it was revealed this week, hired a private investigator to tail a Manitoba judge — one who was presiding over a case in which Carpay was involved.
With investigations now underway by law societies and the police, speculation is mounting: Will Carpay and his centre, a darling of those who oppose perceived government overreach, survive the scrutiny?
The bombshell dropped at the start of this week.
Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench Chief Justice Glenn Joyal was presiding over a case in which seven Manitoba churches are challenging public health restrictions. The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF) is representing the churches.
Joyal told lawyers in court that while running errands recently he discovered he was being followed.
“I have since learned that I was being followed by someone who was working for a private investigation agency,” he said.
Joyal also said that a minor around the age of 14 had gone to his private residence and rang the doorbell looking for information as part of the surveillance effort.
“That private investigation agency was apparently hired by a person or persons for the clear purpose of gathering what was hoped would be potentially embarrassing information in relation to my compliance with COVID public health restrictions,” Joyal told the court, according to a transcript provided to the Star.
“Without wishing to sound apocryphal … the situation I have just described raises the spectre of potential intimidation and it can also give rise to possible speculation about obstruction of justice, direct or indirect.”
Carpay then revealed to the judge it was he who made the hire.
He explained the hiring of the private investigator was in the context of determining whether government officials were complying with public health orders. He disclosed surveillance was being conducted on a number of public officials and that the instructions were to carry out the surveillance “for observation only” — not to knock on anyone’s door.
“It was a bad decision to have done this observation during a court case,” Carpay told the court. “That was an error in judgment and I’m deeply sorry for my error in judgment in that regard. And I’m very sorry about the impact that this has had on His Lordship and family members.”
In a public statement, Carpay apologized and said the decision to hire the investigator “was not discussed with Justice Centre clients, staff lawyers or board members.”
A statement by the JCCF board said: “No member of the Board had any prior notice or knowledge of this plan and had not been consulted on it. Had the Board been advised of the plan, it would have immediately brought it to an end.”
Carpay has taken an indefinite leave as president. Calls and emails from the Star to the JCCF and Carpay went unanswered this week. In a statement posted online, Lisa Bildy, the interim president, said Carpay “owned this mistake and will deal with whatever flows from it. In the meantime, many people in this country are counting on the Justice Centre to continue its work.”
The law societies in Alberta and Manitoba confirmed they are looking into the matter and the Winnipeg Police Service said it is also investigating.
The incident now raises a question of “integrity” for the JCCF and Carpay, said a former board member, Marco Navarro-Genie, who served from 2013 to 2018. He was also the group’s vice-president for a short time in 2019, but left because he and Carpay “didn’t get along.”
“You’re … doing the same thing that you’re accusing the politicians of doing, which is living by a different standard than the standard that you set,” he said.
“This is the clincher for me.”
He said he questions the statement that no one on the board knew what Carpay was up to in Manitoba. Based on his six years of service on the JCCF’s board, Navarro-Genie said, he knew Carpay to be someone who would call one or two board members about an important decision.
“If there was involvement at the board level, then that would show an even greater hole in the prudence of the organization.”
Since his 20s, Carpay has never shied away from controversy and speaking his mind.
When he made his first run for public office as a Reform Party candidate in 1993, he was quoted in a student newspaper saying unemployment insurance had “become a general social program for beach-seekers and ski bums.” He claimed at the time he was misquoted.
During the same campaign, Carpay came under scrutiny for his ties to a newspaper belonging to an “ultraconservative” group called the Northern Foundation whose president was reportedly banished from the Reform Party after the Toronto Sun reported she had ties to “racial extremists.”
Carpay told the Vancouver Province he was unaware of the president’s associates and said he joined the group as part of an intellectual journey. “I was dissatisfied with the (Conservative) government and this was kind of a think-tank group.”
Over the decades, he has penned hundreds of columns and letters to the editor, archives show.
In 1994, he railed against what he called the “homosexual political agenda.” In 1995, he decried mandatory helmets for cyclists, saying that “freedom … is the right to make stupid choices as well as smart ones.” In 2001, he took the then-Ralph Klein government in Alberta to task for spending “far more than the most ideological socialist government in B.C. ever did.”
More recently, in 2018, Carpay made national headlines when he spoke at a Rebel Media event and seemed to compare the Nazi swastika to the Pride flag — words for which he later apologized.
“How do we defeat today’s totalitarianism?” Carpay said in front of a crowd.
“Because again, you’ve got to think about the common characteristics. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a hammer and sickle for communism, or whether it’s the swastika for Nazi Germany, or whether it’s a rainbow flag, the underlying thing is a hostility towards individual freedoms.”
Carpay founded the Calgary-based Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms in 2010. It describes itself as “a voice for freedom in Canada’s courtrooms” with a mission to “defend the constitutional freedoms of Canadians through litigation and education.” It proclaims on its social media platforms, “We sue the government.”
The cases it has pursued have included those dealing with public-speaking engagements promoting right-wing Americans; issues involving transgender rights; vanity licence plates on cars; and COVID-19 public health restrictions.
Often, the JCCF puts out punchy press releases to drum up publicity for its cases.
“Indigenous man gets his ‘NDN CAR’ license plate back from Manitoba government,” reads one JCCF news release from 2019.
“Six-year-old told by teacher that ‘girls are not real’: case to proceed to a full hearing,” reads another from 2020.
During this pandemic, Carpay has repeatedly spoken out against COVID-19 lockdown measures. In one video posted online, he stated, “COVID simply isn’t the unusually deadly killer that politicians make it out to be.” He accused media of “fear mongering” and argued that car crashes posed a greater risk to Canadians under 70 than the virus.
Carpay and the JCCF’s work has been spotlighted multiple times by controversial conservative commentator Ezra Levant. Earlier this year, in the midst of filing lawsuits on behalf of churches that were prevented from holding worship services due to COVID-19 restrictions, Carpay appeared on Rebel News’ The Ezra Levant Show, in which Levant introduced Carpay as “my own friend and a friend to our viewers.”
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“I think you’re doing more religious liberty litigation in Canada than any of the so-called civil liberties groups who’ve gone silent and I want to thank you for that on behalf of our Rebel viewers,” Levant said.
On the surface, the JCCF’s stated goal, to “defend the constitutional freedoms of Canadians,” sounds commendable and “neutral,” said Valerie Scatamburlo-D’Annibale, a professor in the department of communication, media and film at the University of Windsor.
However, the organization is “very much part of the right-wing cultural war apparatus.”
“They’ve taken a page right out of the American cultural conservative rights playbook.”
More than lawyers, or even activists, Carpay and his colleagues are “provocateurs,” who have, among other things, created “hysteria” over the issue of free speech at Canadian universities, she said in offering her assessment, citing a JCCF campaign started years ago to build “free speech walls” on campuses.
“They take on the left and so-called social justice warriors, but they’re warriors as well. They’re the cultural warriors of the right.”
Its recent representation of churches fighting lockdown measures during the pandemic undermines any notion of the common or public good, she argued.
“It’s very American — it’s all about individual liberty.”
This week, Karine Levasseur, a professor of political studies at the University of Manitoba, filed a complaint with the Canada Revenue Agency, arguing that some of the JCCF’s published materials questioning the lethality of COVID-19 strayed from its charitable purpose.
“What expertise do JCCF board members have related to epidemiology to challenge the lethality of the COVID-19 virus?” she asked.
Getting a complete portrait of where the JCCF gets its funding is not easy.
On its website, the JCCF says it “gratefully acknowledges” the financial support from the Aurea Foundation, the Lotte & John Hecht Memorial Foundation, the Donner Canadian Foundation, as well as 10,000 private individuals.
The Aurea Foundation was established in 2006 with a $25-million endowment from the Peter and Melanie Munk Charitable Foundation, according to the Munk foundation’s website.
“The Aurea Foundation gives special attention to the investigation of issues related to the political and economic foundations of freedom, the strengthening of the free market system, the protection and enhancement of democratic values, human rights and human dignity, and the role of responsible citizenship.”
In an email, Frank Penny, secretary-treasurer for the Aurea Foundation, said the foundation made its last grant to the Justice Centre in 2015. He would not say how much had been donated.
The Hecht foundation website states one of its objectives is “economic education that promotes the principles of a free market and its relationship to individual freedoms.” One program it funds is the JCCF’s “Campus Freedom Index,” an annual report that gives Canadian universities grades based on how well they uphold free speech on campus. The foundation confirmed it has given money to JCCF but would not provide details.
In 1997, the Star reported that the Donner foundation, controlled by the American heirs of a wealthy steel magnate, had, after four decades of donating to “uncontroversial mainstream” projects, felt Canada was becoming “too liberal” and started dishing out “cash for the favourite causes of the new, market conservatism.”
The JCCF is not on the foundation’s 2020 list of grant recipients. No one from the foundation responded to the Star’s queries.
Some of the JCCF’s financial support has come from the United States. The Virginia-based Atlas Network, which promotes a “free, prosperous, and peaceful world where the principles of individual liberty, property rights, limited government, and free markets are secured by the rule of law” and connects 500 think-tanks around the world, has previously described the JCCF as one of its global partners.
A spokesperson said Atlas provided JCCF about $23,000 in grants over a five-year period until 2017 and that JCCF has not been a partner since July 2020. The reasons were not specified.
Filings with the Canada Revenue Agency show that the JCCF reported $1.7 million in assets in 2020 and $2.6 million in revenue — $2 million of that was in gifts for which the charity issued tax receipts.
The website charitydata.ca shows that in recent years, the JCCF has received many donations from churches, Christian societies and pro-life associations.
It’s difficult to say if recent events will severely impact the group’s heavily relied upon donations.
While Carpay’s associates say they are shocked and dismayed by his decision to hire someone to follow a judge, they say they haven’t lost faith in his organization’s freedom-fighting mission.
Michel Kelly-Gagnon, president and CEO of the Montreal Economic Institute, is listed on the JCCF website as a supporter. He told the Star that Carpay is a bit of a “daredevil.”
While he said he believes what Carpay did was an “absolute mistake” that left him “baffled,” he said he’s not prepared to withdraw his support.
“I still think they’re doing good work, so I don’t see why I would take out my name because they’re caught up in a controversy,” he said.
Kelly-Gagnon said the JCCF’s conception of individual liberty falls in line with what he calls the “classical liberal or old whig” tradition, which appeals to him.
“They don’t mind taking cases that are controversial,” he said. “They’re an organization that defends individual rights of Canadians and often takes cases that, quite frankly, few people would be willing to defend — not that they’re not defendable but might be less socially popular in the current zeitgeist. They are taking cases that are contrarian to that overall mood.”
Derek Fildebrandt, publisher of the conservative online magazine The Western Standard, for which Carpay is a regular contributor, describes Carpay and the JCCF as “the most prodigious and aggressive organization in Canada fighting against government overreach and authoritarianism during COVID-19 lockdowns.”
“They have represented churches, businesses and individuals that have unreasonably had their basic freedoms stripped. … Those of us who have been opposed to the lockdowns see them as fearless champions while most of our politicians, media, and institutions have become complicit.”
Fildebrandt said hiring a private investigator to shadow a judge was wrong, “but I can see how he felt justified” given the numbers of government officials who’ve been caught breaking their own restrictions.
The loss of Carpay, if it becomes permanent, could be felt deeply by the JCCF in foundational and financial ways, said Navarro-Genie, the former board member.
“John made most, if not all, the big decisions,” he said.
Carpay is a “gifted fundraiser” when it comes to encouraging individuals to hand over money, he said, adding that the foundations that make up for a large chunk of the JCCF’s funding could also be taking a hard look at the situation.
The JCCF does advocacy work and often represents its clients pro bono. Navarro-Genie called donations “rocket fuel” for such an organization.
Scott Byers, a partner with Progressive Barristers in Toronto, said he was surprised that “any lawyer” who is “anywhere along the ideological spectrum” would engage in what Carpay did.
One of the “sad ironies” of the situation between Carpay and the Manitoba judge is that “the JCCF is part of this conservative legal tradition that denounces what they characterize as activist judges who they accuse of engaging in a kind of a free form social engineering that’s divorced from the plain text of the law,” he said.
As far as having a group like the JCCF around in Canada, “I think there’s absolutely room for and a role for organizations like the JCCF,” he said.
“I don’t agree with them,” Byers added, “but that doesn’t mean that I don’t think that they should be, you know, permitted to engage in the kind of advocacy work that they do, but that has to happen within the bounds of the law.”
Kieran Leavitt is an Edmonton-based political reporter for the Toronto Star. Follow him on Twitter: @kieranleavittDouglas Quan is a Vancouver-based reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @dougquan
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