As infection rates drop, Quebec's opposition parties wonder why Legault still needs emergency powers

·6 min read
As infection rates drop, Quebec's opposition parties wonder why Legault still needs emergency powers
Quebec Premier François Legault at an Outremont, Que., restaurant celebrating the loosened public health restrictions last month. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Quebec Premier François Legault at an Outremont, Que., restaurant celebrating the loosened public health restrictions last month. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Around Quebec, the sense of crisis appears to be waning. High school students are getting ready for prom, friends are meeting again on patios and hockey fans are clutching each other with joy outside, and inside, the Bell Centre.

At the National Assembly, Quebec's opposition parties also feel as though the emergency is coming to a close, and with it the need for the wide-ranging powers the government gave itself last year.

But Premier François Legault said recently that it would be "impossible" for him to lift the state of emergency before the end of August, and certainly not before most of the province gets a second dose. That's as specific as he got about a timeline.

As work wrapped up at the legislature before the summer break, the Parti Québécois led an effort to get cross-party agreement on a set of criteria which, if met, would require the government to stop renewing its emergency powers.

Police responding to an anti-curfew protests in Montreal in April.
Police responding to an anti-curfew protests in Montreal in April.(Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

The criteria proposed by the PQ included a 75 per cent first-dose vaccination rate and fewer than 200 COVID-19 patients in hospital. As of Thursday, the vaccination rate stood at 76 per cent, and there were 251 patients in hospital.

"With everyone on terrasses and restrictions being lifted rapidly, I don't see how we can consider the current situation a public health emergency, as set out in the law," the PQ leader, Paul St-Pierre Plamondon, said Wednesday.

To be clear, Quebec's opposition parties aren't contesting the need for continued public health measures, such as physical distancing or wearing masks.

The fear, which is shared by the Liberals and Québec Solidaire as well, is that Legault's government has grown a little too comfortable governing by decree.

In what some interpreted as a Freudian slip, Health Minister Christian Dubé said last month the government couldn't relinquish its emergency powers because of ongoing contract talks with public sector unions.

Dubé later said he misspoke and had meant to highlight that the law permits the government to issue salary premiums to health-care workers.

But the law also allows the government to override collective agreements and rearrange schedules at will, measures that have been roundly criticized by nurses' unions.

Québec Solidaire's co-leader, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, accused Dubé of using the government's emergency powers to pressure unions at the bargaining table. The tactic, Nadeau-Dubois said, was "irresponsible and dangerous."

What's necessary to protect the health of the population

Quebec's Public Health Act was drafted in 2001 but a government hadn't used the law to declare a state of emergency until March 13, 2020, when the scale of the pandemic suddenly became brutally apparent.

Once a public health emergency is declared, the Public Health Act gives the government the ability to bypass the usual decision-making channels in order to take any "measure necessary to protect the health of the population."

Quebec Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade has been demanding the premier consult the legislature before extending the state of emergency.
Quebec Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade has been demanding the premier consult the legislature before extending the state of emergency. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

In the early days of the pandemic, the government used the emergency powers to close schools and businesses, and buy large orders of medical equipment without tender.

More recently, the powers allowed the government to impose a curfew over much of the province, and it empowered police to issue hefty fines to those caught breaking it.

But the law also places a 10-day limit on how long these extra powers can last. The government has two options if it wants to renew the state of emergency.

It can go before the National Assembly and ask MNAs to approve a 30-day extension. Or the government can simply issue an order in council, which permits a 10-day extension.

Legault has opted for the second option, issuing every 10 days a new order in council that extends the state of emergency and the powers that come with it.

For the past several months, the Quebec Liberals have been arguing that the government should be asking the legislature for permission to extend the emergency powers.

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The idea, said party leader Dominique Anglade, is not to deny the government the freedom it needs to combat the pandemic, but to base that power on legislative, as opposed to executive, approval.

"It's been one year [since the pandemic began], and not once has the National Assembly been consulted. According to the spirit of the law, it should have been consulted at least 12 times," Anglade said in April.

The government replied that it would be a waste of time to debate and vote on extensions while the third wave raged, though it hasn't shown any more willingness to go that route since infection rates dropped.

The unease at the tremendous power the government has accrued for itself extends well beyond opposition politicians.

People line up to get their COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination centre, Thursday, June 10, 2021 in Montreal. As of Thursday, the provincial vaccination rate stood at 76 per cent, and there were 251 patients in hospital.
People line up to get their COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination centre, Thursday, June 10, 2021 in Montreal. As of Thursday, the provincial vaccination rate stood at 76 per cent, and there were 251 patients in hospital.(Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Two separate legal challenges have been launched, both asking the courts to force the government to seek the legislature's approval before extending the state of emergency. The first lawsuit failed. The second is awaiting a decision.

In the meantime, public pressure continues to mount on the government. Last month, nearly 40 civil society groups endorsed an open letter by the Ligue des Droits, a prominent Quebec human rights group, calling for the state of emergency to be lifted.

"It was useful at the beginning of the pandemic, but the state of emergency has to be lifted right now," the Ligue des Droits said in a statement.

Legault's impatience

Legault has argued it's necessary to keep the emergency powers at hand, at least for the summer, in order to enforce the remaining limits on indoor and outdoor gatherings.

But the longer Legault hangs on to the emergency powers, the longer he rebuffs calls to seek the legislature's approval, the more he risks feeding his reputation for impatience with democratic institutions.

He has already abolished school board elections, and transformed French school boards, once counterweights to centralization, into appendages of the provincial government.

And with the Laicity Act, his became the first government in Quebec to suspend access to the basic freedoms set out in both the provincial and federal charters of rights. His government intends to do so again with its reforms of Quebec's language laws, Bill 96.

Legislative accountability may have seemed like an esoteric consideration when hospitals were overflowing and hundreds were dying everyday.

But as the crisis passes and Quebecers turn their attention again to more familiar political concerns, many will expect to find their democratic institutions as robust as they were before the pandemic.