Quebec Premier François Legault says he will introduce a special bill to prevent anti-vaccination protests in front of places such as schools and hospitals because his "patience had reached its limit."
"It's important to leave our children and our patients in peace," Legault told a group of reporters at Quebec's National Assembly on Wednesday.
"It doesn't make sense that [people] are trying to intimidate our children."
Since school resumed last month, five such protests have taken place outside primary and secondary schools in Montreal, voicing opposition to vaccine mandates and other COVID-19 public health measures. Others have been held outside hospitals.
Marwah Rizqy, the Liberal opposition's education critic, had drafted a bill to deter such protests in front of schools, but the premier wants a new law to also apply to clinics, vaccination centres and daycares.
Premier wants bill adopted quickly
Legault said he will introduce a bill to his caucus on Wednesday afternoon before tabling it in the legislature. He says he hopes other parties will support it so it can be adopted as soon as Thursday.
Earlier on Wednesday, the three main opposition parties said it's unacceptable that protesters are approaching children, inciting them to disobey public health orders and not get vaccinated. They say they are ready to work with the government to adopt the law quickly.
In order for the bill to pass that fast, however, the government will also need the approval of the sole member of the Conservative Party of Quebec, Claire Samson, who was vague about her position.
"I am not against the principle," she said, explaining she believes society must protect people who want to visit hospitals and schools. "I don't think it's OK to try to bully or influence children."
But she expressed worry the bill could inadvertently restrict other demonstrations and says she is waiting to see its wording before making a decision.
"We'll wait to read what the government comes up with," she said. "If it's a special law, how far will it go? Are we going to stop nurses from doing sit-ins outside hospitals?"
The scope of the bill remains unclear. There are already provincial laws that prevent people from blocking access to schools, hospitals and clinics.
The province's Education Act prohibits people from acting "in any manner that compromises a child's attending school as required," with fines ranging from $1,000 to $10,000 for people and from $3,000 to $30,000 for legal entities.
Similarly, hindering access "where health services or social services are provided" can, under the Health and Social Services Act, bring fines from $250 to $1,250 for people and from $500 to $2,500 for legal entities.
Quebec also banned protests within 50 metres of abortion clinics in 2016.
Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, parliamentary leader for Québec solidaire, said his party would support such a bill but, like Samson, warned he doesn't want it to ban other types of protests outside schools, such as demonstrations by parents who support public education.
Geneviève Guilbault, the province's public security minister, said the bill will be balanced and will protect people's right to protest.
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 Bédard, president of the Federation interprofessionnelle de la santé du Québec, 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.''