As the pandemic continues, the Quebec government unanimously adopted into law a bill to ban anti-vaccine protests near hospitals, schools, daycares as well as COVID-19 immunization and testing clinics.
Bill 105 was adopted Thursday afternoon with amendments, a few hours after it was tabled by Public Security Minister Geneviève Guilbault.
The special law forbids all protests related to the pandemic within 50 metres of the above-listed establishments.
CEGEPs, vocational centres and adult-ed centres were also added to the list of institutions covered by the bill, after a suggestion by Liberal Marwah Rizqy.
An amendment was added, however, to allow workers to demonstrate for better working conditions, for example.
But parents demonstrating for better air ventilation at their children’s schools will be prevented from doing so because it’s connected to the pandemic, Guilbault said.
Those who hold or organize demonstrations within 50 metres of certain educational and health institutions could be slapped with fines ranging from $1,000 to $6,000.
The penalties will go as high as $12,000 for any protester who intimidates or threatens people entering or leaving schools, daycares, hospitals and designated COVID-19 testing or vaccination centres.
The new measures will expire after 30 days, but the government reserves the right to renew them while the COVID-19 state of emergency order remains in effect.
“I understand that it is difficult to restrict the right to protest, but, frankly, there are limits,” Premier François Legault wrote on his Facebook page earlier in the day.
“We must spare our children, those who are sick and the workers in the health network who take care of our loved ones during a pandemic that affects them all.”
The three main opposition parties had voiced their support to limit protests against COVID-19 health orders near schools and hospitals. Legault said Wednesday that he hoped to pass the bill within a day, but that it would require the unanimous consent of all members of the legislature.
The province’s lone Conservative MNA had said she wanted to see what was in the proposed legislation and to discuss it before passing it into law.
“It’s not a small affair,” Claire Samson told reporters at the National Assembly before the bill was tabled. “I think we need time.”
Quebec has seen anti-vaccine demonstrations outside of educational and health institutions over the past month — and the premier said he wonders how workers on the front lines of the pandemic feel when they witness one.
“What is perhaps most shocking to me is to imagine how our nurses must be feeling when they see this,” Legault wrote in his social media post. “These women and men have been giving body and soul for months to treat COVID patients despite very difficult working conditions.”
Dr. Gilbert Boucher, president of the Quebec association of emergency medicine specialists, welcomed the move.
“It’s finally time that the government does something about it because this is not appropriate,” he said, adding anti-vaccine protesters are spreading “fake news.”
“They’re using theories really to block the vaccine and there’s no scientific data not to get the vaccine.”
Human rights lawyer Julius Grey, however, said he saw no need for new legislation.
“The right to demonstrate is a specifically enshrined right. And there are already provisions in case of noisy, aggressive, dangerous, violent demonstrations,” he said. “All you have to do is enforce the rules about violence, noise and insistence and everything will be fine.”
The Montreal police department (SPVM) for its part said that while safety remains its top priority it respects the fundamental right of citizens to demonstrate, regardless of their opinions.
“This right, however, must be exercised in accordance with the prevailing laws and regulations,” the SPVM said in an email to Global News.
The SPVM said it was aware of protests outside schools and hospitals on its territory and that they were being closely monitored with officers ready to intervene if any laws were broken.
Since the beginning of the month, five such anti-vaccine protests have been held in Montreal — four outside schools and one outside the McGill University Health Centre.
The SPVM said only one ticket was issued related to the use of a megaphone which is a violation of city regulations.
The use of a megaphone is prohibited on public property except for security purposes.
—with files from Global News’ Oliva O’Malley and The Canadian Press