A Greater Sudbury Police officer is facing charges after an altercation at the Espanola Recreation Centre on Sept. 26, over COVID-19 protocols, Sudbury.com has learned.
In a news release, the Manitoulin OPP stated Melisa Rancourt was arrested and charged with resisting a peace officer, and entering a premises when entry has been prohibited, contrary to the Trespass to Property Act (TPA). Her partner, Dana Rancourt, was also charged with trespassing in regards to the same incidents.
What the OPP release did not state were the circumstances that led to the women’s arrests.
Sudbury.com was able to connect with an eyewitness to the events of Sept. 26, as well as with chief administrative officer of the Town of Espanola, who confirmed what his staff told him about the events of that day. Sudbury.com was also able to connect with Dana Rancourt, who provided her own point of view.
The eyewitness, who asked not to be named to protect their privacy in the small community west of Sudbury, was present for two incidents that led to the Rancourts being charged. Sudbury.com also communicated with two other witnesses who corroborated the events as described.*
The first incident took place around 10 a.m. when parents and children were filing into the arena for a hockey practice.
“They (Melisa and Dana) came in and the person at the door asked them for their vaccine proof,” said the eyewitness. “They just said ‘no,’ and kept walking.”
The eyewitness said that the facilities manager at the Espanola Recreation Centre then called the OPP, as per the municipal policy, and about 20 minutes later, an OPP officer arrived and went to speak with the couple, who were seated in the spectator stands.
“They talked to them for probably about a half an hour, then they got the facilities manager, who was also a coach, to leave the ice to come up to formally tell them to leave because they didn't show their vaccine proof, and they refused,” the person said, describing this first interaction with police as “peaceful.”
“So that officer wrote them both trespassing tickets. It was a calm exchange. The first time it was pretty calm, I didn't hear any yelling or anything.”
Allan Hewitt, CAO and treasurer for the Town of Espanola, said that although he was not present for either incident on Sept. 26 — one of which occurred at that 10 a.m. practice and another later in the day at 12 p.m. — his staff confirmed that OPP officers were called for both two incidents. He explained to Sudbury.com that the Espanola Recreation Centre is adhering to all government regulations required for COVID-19 protocols, and the officers were called when two women did not show proof of vaccination and also during a second incident, when the OPP were forced to arrest the two women and remove them from the building.
After taking the trespassing citations, the Rancourts did not leave the arena, the witness said, but were allowed to remain and watch their child finish hockey practice.
Situation turns ugly
It was when the couple returned to the arena at noon to watch their other child’s hockey game that things went “not so great,” said the witness.
Despite being cited for trespassing earlier in the day, the couple returned to the arena for the hockey game of one of their other children. The interaction began the same way, said the witness, with the women refusing to show proof of vaccination and simply walking past the person checking the vaccine proof at the arena entrance.
The witness said the arena staff again called the OPP, as per policy. This time, when the OPP officer arrived, the two women were escorted from the stands to a hallway where the locker rooms are located. There were children in the locker rooms at the time.
The witness also saw this interaction from a slight distance, but said this one was much louder and easier to hear.
The eyewitness said the OPP officer was both speaking to and seemed to be pleading with the couple to leave.
“He’s saying to them, especially Mel, who's a police officer, ‘You know I don't have a choice in this, we've already been through this, we've already issued you a fine, you have to leave’ and they refused,” the witness said.
When told by the officer they would have to leave, the eyewitness said Melisa Rancourt became irate and began kicking one of the locker room doors.
“Mel got a little bit physical,” said the eyewitness, though clarified Rancourt didn’t become physical with the OPP officer. “She was upset, she was yelling, she kicked one of the locker room doors. I'm assuming that's where the resisting arrest charge came from.”
The eyewitness said after the Rancourt began to act out physically by kicking the doors, the OPP officer put both Dana and Melisa Rancourt in handcuffs, neither of whom resisted, and walked them off the premises.
What shocked the witness was Melisa Rancourt’s demeanor as she was being led out of the arena. In full view of parents and children, the Greater Sudbury Police constable began calling everyone within earshot “nazis.”
“I was in the lobby,” said the eyewitness, “and Mel was screaming to everyone that we were all nazis, and we should be really proud of ourselves for kicking her out of her five-year-old’s hockey game.
“I think they were going to make a stand,” said the eyewitness, who knows both women. “She's been posting all over Facebook for like a week that she was going and she didn't care. She was going to walk in, they had no right to ask for her medical information.”
While they refused to show proof of vaccination, both women were wearing masks, the witness said.
When asked if they would like to share their side of the story with Sudbury.com, Dana Rancourt sent an extensive email in which she, in part, said the couple only wanted to protect their rights.
Dana Rancourt spoke of the couple’s love for their three children, and said that they’ve always followed COVID-19 protocols such as masking, social distancing and good hygiene. She said the couple were surprised at the extreme reaction by all involved, and expected a more reasonable discussion to occur.
“Over the last 18 months, we have been very concerned about the health and welfare of our entire family, and have followed all of the recommended protocols without question, in order to protect ourselves and our community,” said Rancourt in her statement. “During this time, it has been shown that masking, social distancing and good hygiene have been effective tools to combat the spread of Covid-19.”
She said this is why they do not feel the need to provide proof of vaccination or feel the need to be vaccinated.
“The recent developments with the requiring of 'papers', in order to engage in everyday freedoms has us deeply concerned,” reads the statement. “I have watched my wife (Melisa, a GSPS constable) actively protect and defend the Charter of Rights and Freedoms for over 20 years, which guarantees every person the right to be free from discrimination.
“Now our government has decided to suspend those rights, and require the sharing of medical information in order to access basic freedoms such as dining out, and attending children’s sporting events. It is especially unreasonable and unnecessary as it relates to sporting events, as masking and social distancing are still easily accomplished and are indeed still required in these facilities.”
Rancourt, who is an administrative assistant at A.B. Ellis Public School in Espanola, said the couple considered removing their children from hockey because of the vaccination requirements, but in the end decided that sports and social interaction were paramount to their children’s mental health.
“We were very shocked when the government then decided to require those attending youth sports facilities to be vaccinated, and provide proof of same, or be barred from attending,” stated Rancourt. “We wrestled with the decision of removing our kids from hockey, but they have suffered enough and very much need the social skills that organized activities provide (teamwork, responsibility, physical coordination).”
She said that their only intention was to support their children and ensure their health and safety at all times, but say, “We know that there are a great many people that are against this vaccine passport system, and all that it represents to our basic human rights.” What she did not explain is why the couple decided to take this very public stand at a children's hockey game.
Rancourt’s position as a GSPS officer was confirmed to Sudbury.com by GSPS on Tuesday in a statement reacting to the officer's arrest. Police Chief Paul Pedersen said while the actions haven’t been proven, the allegations, if true, are “dishonourable and discouraging.”
“Our members have sworn an oath to uphold the law according to any act, any regulation, rule or by-law. Although these accusations have not yet been proven in a court of law, the alleged actions of this officer during this incident are dishonourable and discouraging.
GSPS said that in accordance with the Police Services Act of Ontario, Rancourt has been assigned to administrative duties. The incident has also been forwarded to the Professional Standards Bureau for further investigation. An investigation has been initiated for breaches against the Police Services Act.
*The final sentence in this paragraph was accidentally omitted from an earlier version of this story.