Quebec Premier François Legault focused on a post-pandemic future as he set out his government’s priorities, ranging from fixing the health-care system to bolstering the French language, in his inaugural speech Tuesday after proroguing the province’s legislature.
The COVID-19 health crisis has been devastating — especially when it tore through long-term care homes in the fatal first wave — and forced people into the “battle of their lives,” he said. It has killed more than 11,400 Quebecers to date.
But Legault noted the province handled the last 19 months with “audacity, perseverance and courage.” He said the situation is improving after a long year and a half, with the introduction of vaccination and the gradual easing of sanitary measures.
“I am more confident than ever since the start of the pandemic that the worst is behind us,” Legault said. “I am convinced this is the time for Quebec to look to the future.”
The government will put an end to its pandemic-induced state of emergency once children between the ages of five and 11 are vaccinated against the novel coronavirus. Legault said he hopes that will be by the beginning of 2022, though he acknowledged the situation could change.
Legault had previously been vague about when he planned to lift the public health emergency that has been renewed every 10 days since it was first declared in March 2020.
That declaration under Quebec’s Public Health Act gives the government broad powers, including the ability to close places of assembly, limit travel, enter into contracts and “order any other measure necessary to protect the health of the population.”
Opposition parties and civil liberties groups have criticized the continued state of emergency, saying there needs to be more debate about what specific emergency powers are still needed to fight the pandemic.
In his address, Legault said he wants to wants to focus on fixing the health-care system. He pointed to the accelerated training and hiring of 9,400 orderlies last year to fix urgent staffing shortages in embattled long-term care homes as an example of positive change.
“We are able to change things in Quebec,” he said.
The premier said he also wants to fix how work is organized in the health network and to ensure that all Quebecers have access to a family doctor. Quebec must also focus on offering improved home care for seniors, he added.
The government also wants to scale back on it dependence on private agencies to fill in the gaps when it comes to a lack of resources and health-care staff in the public system, according to Legault.
Aside from the health-care system, Quebec needs to focus on its youth, he said. This includes adding thousands of spaces in daycares and putting forth an action plan for mental health later this fall. The government will also implement more recommendations from the Laurent commission, which investigated the shortcomings of youth protection services.
Citing the rise of working from home due to the pandemic, Legault said his government will also prioritize its plan to offer high-speed internet in all regions.
The premier, who led his party to power for the first time with a clear majority in 2018, says his government’s priorities are still similar to those before the emergence of COVID-19. This includes protecting the French language and culture, as well as demanding more control over immigration in the province.
Quebec will also continue to push forth on the Legault government’s secularism law, known as Bill 21. The legislation, which bars some public-sector employees from wearing religious symbols on the job, is currently being challenged in court.
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Legault has argued the law has widespread support — though it has also been roundly criticized inside and outside the province — and said his government will continue to fight for it.
Opposition Parties react
Addressing reporters after the speech, Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade said the address contained little that was new and only touched lightly on some of the most important issues for Quebecers, such as climate change and the cost of living.
“It took 53 minutes in the speech of Mr. Legault for him to speak once about climate change and environment,” she said. “Fifty-three minutes. That tells you about what priority he gives to this issue.”
She also called Legault’s message to anglophones patronizing, after he said English-speaking Quebecers were the best-served minority in Canada.
“We are proud of that,” Legault said. “Schools, colleges, universities, hospitals, the media — Canada’s francophone minorities dream of mastering so many institutions.”
Anglade accused Legault of not taking into consideration the concerns brought forward during recent hearings on the proposed French language reform.
“The English community in Quebec needs to be told how well they are treated right now? I think the English community wants to know how it can build together a stronger Quebec with everybody,’ she said.
Anglade also called the speech an exercise in marketing, which Québec solidaire’s Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois seemed to agree with.
“What we heard is a list of electoral promises,” he said, “a majority of them being old promises — just rebranded.”
Legault’s speech comes after he announced prorogation on Oct. 7, cutting the last session short. It put an end to work on all bills before the national assembly, but the government can bring back legislation it considers essential and pick up where it left off.
The next provincial election is less than a year away. Quebecers head to the polls on Oct. 3, 2022.
—with files from Global News’ Raquel Fletcher, Annabelle Olivier and The Canadian Press