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An almost empty Sainte-Catherine Street is shown on Boxing Day in Montreal on Dec. 26, 2020.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Civil libertarians say they are concerned Quebec’s provincewide COVID-19 curfew will lead to excessive punishment, arbitrary detention and racial profiling, and could be ordered in other provinces.

But public-health professionals view the curfew, which begins Saturday and runs for a month, as an effective way to communicate the potential dangers and what must be done to stop the coronavirus spread.

Much of the world has turned to curfews to combat the pandemic. France, Germany, Italy and dozens of other countries on several continents have used them, either nationally or regionally. In the United States, several municipalities and some states, such as Ohio, have imposed curfews.

But in Canada, curfews have been few and limited in scope, initiated at times in First Nations communities or northern regions, such as one in Nunavik, Que.

The curfew announced Wednesday by Quebec Premier François Legault runs from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. ET and allows for an exception for people who are working. Pharmacies and gas stations can remain open. The fines are steep: $1,000 to $6,000 for curfew-breakers.

Quebec toughens pandemic restrictions amid rising number of COVID-19 cases

Joanna Baron, executive director of the Canadian Constitution Foundation, an advocacy group, said the poor and racialized minorities are more likely to do shift work and therefore are more likely to be stopped, she said, even if they fit within exceptions to the curfew.

“Police are going to be asked to enforce it and it’s going to inevitably lead to more arbitrary detention. Needless to say, we find it very worrying.”

Michael Bryant, executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said curfews are a tool commonly used in the criminal context – as a bail or probation condition, for instance – and are seen as a serious restriction on an individual’s liberty.

Quebec Premier Francois Legault said the province will be placed under a curfew starting Saturday as the number of new COVID-19 cases continues to rise. Quebeckers could be fined up to $6,000 if they're found on the street between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m.

The Canadian Press

He said he would like to know what data Quebec has that show a curfew is necessary. Mr. Legault did not provide data, but a public-health official said the disease is spreading through social contact and people are becoming less cautious about physical distancing and wearing masks.

Mr. Bryant also said he worries about how police will use their discretion in enforcing the curfew. “The civil liberties concern is that a new liberty low is being reached here and it will put political pressure on others to do the same.”

Indeed, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said a curfew could be on the table for the province.

Julius Grey, a Montreal lawyer specializing in civil liberties, said public-health law permits curfews, as long as people who need to be out are exempt. The courts, he said, are likely to permit a defence of necessity for anyone who can show why they had to be out during a curfew.

He said he understands why the Quebec authorities are opting for a curfew, because in the past few weeks young adults have been spreading the virus when they socialize at night.

“I don’t think there’s anything in the nature of a curfew that makes it more drastic than any of the other measures” used to fight the pandemic, he said.

He said he would like to see the province avoid the use of heavy fines, which courts could find are so extreme they amount to cruel and unusual punishment under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. He would prefer to see police circulate and tell curfew-breakers to go home, he said.

Roxane Borgès Da Silva, a professor in the University of Montreal’s school of public health, said France combined a curfew with a partial lockdown and found it effective. Daily cases dropped to less than 20,000 from 80,000, she said.

“We are in a catastrophic situation, and people are not aware of that,” she said.

Most people alive today did not live through epidemics such as polio, which were ended or weakened by vaccines, and as a result may not take the current pandemic seriously enough, said Christopher Rutty, a public-health historian, and an adjunct professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

“The problem we’re in right now is there’s holes; the coronavirus loves finding vulnerabilities. Some places may lock down and do the right thing and somebody else isn’t. It’s at the stage where it’s spreading pretty wildly at the community level.”

The curfew is a way of evening out the restrictions, he added.

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