The Quebec government plans to introduce a bill on Thursday banning anti-vaccine protests near schools and hospitals, and Premier François Legault says he wants it adopted within a day.
With the province’s three main opposition parties open to passing the bill, its rapid adoption will require the support of the remaining party in the legislature – the Conservatives – and its sole member. But Claire Samson says she wants to see what’s in it first.
“We’ll wait to read what the government comes up with,” Samson said Wednesday. “If it’s a special law, how far will it go? Are we going to stop nurses from doing sit-ins outside hospitals?”
Earlier in the day, Legault said the bill would include fines for people who “are going to hold anti-vaccine protests” close to schools and hospitals.
“It doesn’t make sense to have anti-vaccine protests in front of places that are for our children or our patients,” Legault said during question period.
The Quebec Liberal party has said it supports a ban on anti-vaccine protests within 50 metres of schools. “Today, I have one message to anti-vaxxers: leave our children alone,” Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade told reporters Wednesday.
Since classes resumed last month, at least five protests have taken place outside primary and secondary schools in Montreal. Protests have also occurred outside hospitals.
Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, the spokesperson for the Quebec solidaire party, said he supports the proposed legislation but doesn’t want it to ban other types of protests outside schools, such as demonstrations by parents who support public education.
Heidi Yetman, president of the Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers, said she would not be opposed to a law limiting anti-vaccine protests in front of schools.
“I think it’s really important that we do not take away the rights of protesters voicing their opinions,” Yetman, whose association represents teachers at English-language schools, said in an interview Wednesday.
“But at the same time, these anti-vaxxers who are protesting in front of hospitals and schools, to me that’s very dangerous. Let’s keep them away from the buildings where children have to have access, patients need access.”
Nancy Bedard, president of the Federation interprofessionnelle de la sante du Quebec, the province’s largest nurses union, said in a statement the right to protest is fundamental but health-care workers, patients, students and school staff shouldn’t be intimidated.
Pearl Eliadis, a human rights lawyer who teaches at McGill University, said a law banning anti-vaccine protests in front of schools and hospitals would limit the constitutional right to peaceful assembly.
“The issue is not really freedom of expression,” she said in an interview Wednesday. “No one’s telling them they can’t say stuff. It’s just where they’re saying it.”
If the law were to be challenged, she said, the government would have to demonstrate that the legislation is a reasonable limit on the right to peaceful assembly and that it prevents people exercising that right from harming others.
“I think there’s a strong argument to be made that children, in particular minor children, should not in any way be intimidated or frightened for going to school,” Eliadis said. “If you’re a patient going into a facility, or trying to get into a facility, and you’ve been intimidated or frightened, your right to access has been diminished.”
Quebec has had a law in place since 2016 barring people from protesting within 50 metres of abortion clinics, Eliadis said. That law targets specific types of protest and includes a clear boundary – elements she said could also help the anti-vaccine protest bill survive a court challenge.
Julius Grey, a constitutional lawyer, said there are already laws against disruptive demonstrations and that while a ban on protests near schools might be seen as a reasonable limit on fundamental charter rights, he doesn’t think it’s a good idea.
“I do not think that you have to protect children from the knowledge that there are different opinions,” he said Wednesday in an interview. “I don’t agree with the anti-vaxxers, but nevertheless, I think the children are smarter than most people give them credit for and they can understand that there are different points of view on very controversial issues,” he said.
“The purpose of the charter is precisely to permit unpopular, minority, even wrong views to be stated.”
Meanwhile, Quebec reported 683 new cases of COVID-19 Wednesday and five additional deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus. The Health Department said the number of hospitalizations rose by six, to 280, and 91 people were in intensive care, a rise of five from the day before.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters and editors.