The Quebec government is facing criticism for imposing its second curfew of the pandemic, a distinct response compared to Canada’s other provinces and territories.
“I have never felt so infantilized by the government,” Quebec political analyst Patrick Déry tweeted over the weekend.
The province was subject, as of New Year’s Eve, to a curfew that forbids people from being outside their homes from 10 p.m. until 5 a.m. local time and from holding indoor gatherings, in response to record infection rates from the Omicron variant. Other limits include the closing of restaurant dining areas and houses of worship, 25-person limits on funerals and the suspension of indoor sports. Retailers not deemed essential were ordered to close Sundays.
The government announced the measures last Thursday, but just in case citizens missed the news, their smartphones blared with emergency alerts over the dinner hour the next day warning the measure was set to take effect. The previous curfew lasted from Jan. 9 to May 28, 2021.
Almost immediately, there was pushback and confusion surrounding the curfew and accompanying exemptions. On Saturday evening, Montreal police handed out 57 tickets to people for violating the curfew and arrested a 41-year-old woman for assaulting an officer at a protest in downtown Montreal. After initially saying dog owners wouldn’t be exempt to take their pets out after hours – as they were during the first curfew – the government backtracked Sunday, telling The Canadian Press it would change the rules soon.
Though the government considers gas stations, pharmacies and corner stores to be essential services, grocers were not permitted to open Sunday, a stance that angered Georges Najm, owner of the Freshmart supermarket in Chelsea, 15 minutes from Ottawa. “It doesn’t make any sense for me,” he said, after turning away more than 10 people from his store.
“I have customers today that probably went to Ottawa, which isn’t closed. It’s bizarre and doesn’t make sense that one day we’re closed and the other six we’re not. That one day is not going to make a change, nor is the curfew.”
On the date of the curfew announcement, 13 Quebec academics from a range of disciplines published an open letter denouncing the measure as “ineffective and harmful,” saying it wasn’t an appropriate tool to manage a pandemic. Rather, they said the spread of the virus had followed the same pattern as other provinces where no curfews were ever in effect.
The group said Quebec had meanwhile “done almost nothing” to improve ventilation and air quality in educational institutions and workplaces where most of the recent outbreaks happened, and that actions such as giving out N95 masks, rapid tests and air purifiers “should take precedence over control, repression and draconian measures. … Will the government continue to place Quebec in a separate box from the rest of Canada every winter, by prohibiting the free movement of people at night?”
In response, the government said its response was based on the advice of experts and a handful of supporting studies from France, Jordan and Canada. Premier François Legault told reporters last week the curfew is “an extreme action to take because the situation is extreme.”
Provincial Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade tweeted last week that the enactment of a curfew without accompanying proactive measures was “proof” the Premier “has lost control.” Her spokesman, Jeremy Ghio, said Sunday, ”The government is basically telling Quebeckers what to do but they’re not telling Quebeckers what they are doing. We hope [the government will] stop taking decisions based on polls and start taking decisions based on science.”
Cara Zwibel, director of fundamental freedoms and acting general counsel with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said the curfew was “pretty draconian, and we’re concerned about how much liberty is being restricted, particularly at this stage when it’s clear this is not a temporary situation.”
She added she was troubled by the “potential for abuse because you’re basically empowering police to stop and question people … and decide in the moment what constitutes a good reason” to be out past curfew. She added the CCLA was concerned that racialized and marginalized populations would be subject to ”greater police scrutiny.”
Meanwhile, financially strapped municipalities and their police forces across Quebec were left to decide to what extent they should enforce the new rules. Montreal spokesman Guillaume Rivest said in an e-mail Sunday the municipality and its police force were taking an approach of “tolerance and compassion,” while Montreal police spokeswoman Véronique Comtois said officers would “continue to use their judgment” in approaching curfew-breakers. “They have discretionary power. … If a person is able to explain the situation, it makes sense and is reasonable, the police officers will decide” on whether to issue a ticket. Tickets carry fines of $1,000 or more for adults.
Chelsea Mayor Pierre Guénard said the regional police force that serves his community and five others in western Quebec would sustain “a big impact” financially by adding curfew patrols to their duties. “This will mean more overtime will have to be paid again,” as during the last curfew.
Despite hearing from citizens who questioned the wisdom of the curfew, Mr. Guénard said, “We have to go with it,” because it was enacted provincially.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article included incorrect information on limits on houses of worship and funerals. This version has been corrected.
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