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Randy Hillier back in court seeking location change for 'Freedom Convoy' jury trial

OTTAWA — Former Ontario MPP Randy Hillier, who is facing charges in connection with last year's "Freedom Convoy," is seeking for a second time to move his jury trial away from Ottawa.
Former Ontario MPP Randy Hillier is back in court motioning to move his jury trial away from Ottawa for the second time. Hillier greets anti-mandate protesters at the War Memorial in Ottawa, Sunday, Feb. 13, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

OTTAWA — Former Ontario MPP Randy Hillier, who is facing charges in connection with last year's "Freedom Convoy," is seeking for a second time to move his jury trial away from Ottawa.

Hillier's lawyer argues that widespread opposition against the protest in the capital could lead to an unfair trial if his case is heard in the city, while Crown prosecutors say there are legal safeguards to ensure an impartial jury.

Hillier is facing nine charges in connection to his participation in the early 2022 protests against COVID-19 public-health measures and the federal government.

Those charges include assaulting a public or peace officer, criminal mischief, counselling others to commit mischief and resisting or obstructing a public or peace officer.

The assault charge stems from allegations of Hillier pushing a metal gate into an officer while trying to get on parliament hill.

Defence lawyer David Anber said "the political demonization of the 'freedom convoy' movement" in Ottawa "has the effect of potentially tainting the perspective of jurors."

He said politicians in Ottawa, such as former mayor Jim Watson, current mayor Mark Sutcliffe, local MPP Joel Harden and city councillor Shawn Menard's comment condemning the 'freedom convoy' protests could bear influence on a fair trial.

He also said the City of Ottawa's official opposition to the convoy movement could be harmful to the trial.

Anber pointed to the city awarding Zexi Li, the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against convoy organizers, for her resistance to the movement and making financial contributions to the Ottawa People's Commission, a group advocating for government and police response after the convoy.

Anber also said media coverage of the protests could have an impact of public opinion, though crown prosecutor Dallas Mack said the 'freedom convoy' was covered nationally and internationally, featuring a range of different perspectives on the issue.

Superior Court Justice Kevin Phillips denied Hillier's initial change-of-venue request, citing procedural safeguards that would ensure a fair trial.

In April, Phillips simultaneously rejected both Hillier's and convoy organizer Pat King's trial relocation applications.

The decision was reached a day before Hillier's lawyer was set to make arguments to move the trial to another jurisdiction.

Phillips ruled that he was bound to a previous court decision in the case of convoy organizer, James Bauder, who argued unsuccessfully to have his trial moved to another region.

"The first judge got it wrong," said Anber.

A later Supreme Court decision prompted Phillips to suggest his original ruling could be overturned as it could set new legal precedence for summary dismissals.

Anber cited Perth or Pembroke as possible locations if the trial is moved.

"We're not favouring a specific jurisdiction, we just think it's not appropriate to be in Ottawa," said Anber.

The court adjourned without hearing a decision, and the next hearing is expected Oct. 6.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 19, 2023.

Liam Fox, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version misspelled the surname of defence lawyer David Anber.