Quebecers can expect to see an increased police presence in public places in the coming days, after the province declared a ban on gatherings of two or more people and gave police power to intervene if people don't comply.
The decision is one of several measures Quebec has put in place in its fight against the coronavirus, including closing schools until May 1, and as of midnight Tuesday, putting a stop to all business activity in the province, with the exception of essential services and work that can be done from home.
"By banning gatherings we are giving ourselves another tool, in addition to all the others," Quebec Public Security Minister Geneviève Guilbault said Sunday. "We are giving police the power to intervene if they need to, if there are people who don't respect the public health directives."
There are certain exceptions to the ban: families of more than two people may gather in their homes; people such as plumbers or electricians can also go into people's homes; and certain workplaces and public transit will continue to operate. People are asked to remain two metres apart in these situations.
"That's the only way to limit the spread and get through this," Guilbault said.
Under the public health emergency declared by the province on March 14 and renewed on March 21, police have the authority to carry out warrants issued by public health authorities, bypassing the usual judicial process.
Quebec City police carried out some 10 interventions Saturday night to stop people from holding gatherings. Most people in those cases collaborated with police, though one was arrested for disturbing the peace and insulting a police officer.
In Montreal, arrest and intervention numbers were not available late Sunday, but police said they received about 80 calls from citizens about illegal public gatherings on Saturday and about 90 on Sunday. The force is also sending more police officers to patrol the streets for illegal gatherings.
Montreal police Insp. André Durocher said that police would enforce the ban in "extreme cases" and is hoping the public will co-operate.
"We're hoping not to have to come to that," he said. "Everyone has an individual responsibility."
The Sûreté du Québec, the provincial police force, said it has received an increased volume of calls from people reporting gatherings that violate the government decree.
They are asking people not to call 911 to report gatherings but instead to contact their local police station to avoid overwhelming emergency services.
'It is a rational thing'
According to human rights lawyer Julius Grey, these are the most severe restrictions on civil liberties in the province since the 1970 October Crisis, when a cell of the Front de libération du Québec kidnapped and later murdered the provincial minister of labour, Pierre Laporte.
"Having any sort of public gathering can be stopped right now on very good grounds," Grey said. He compared the situation to the police authority to disperse political demonstrations.
"But it's a different issue, and I must say it's a more convincing issue now," Grey said. "It is a rational thing to limit contact in the circumstances in which we are now."
He pointed out that the Quebec and Canadian charters continue to apply despite the decree, allowing people who are charged unreasonably to either get damages or be acquitted after the crisis.
"We're not giving [police] any permanent power," Grey said. "This type of emergency … is a more serious matter than political ones where there is real danger of dispersing crowds or protesters over political matters."
While granting police more powers with the declaration of a public health emergency was a necessary measure, it also could lead to race-based discrimination, warned the Montreal-based Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR) in a statement Monday.
"CRARR is preoccupied by the possibility that a disproportionate number of racialized people could be approached by police in the context of this state of emergency, especially young racialized people," the statement said.
The organization is asking Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante to give clear instructions to Montreal police, so that "acts of racial profiling are not committed under the cover of this state of emergency."
CRARR said it will keep operating, to aid people who may be victims of racial profiling.
The professional order representing the province's lawyers, the Barreau du Québec, has also set up a judicial help clinic for people with legal questions about COVID-19.
The service is free and open from Monday to Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., with some 200 lawyers available to answer questions about the emergency measures imposed by Quebec to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Whether police abuse the additional powers vested in them will depend on how the decree is applied by each police force and how the public health situation evolves, said human rights lawyer and Université de Montréal professor Sibel Ataogul.
"It's very hard to tell right now whether or not it's going to be a problem, the fact that [police have] been given these new powers, because we don't know how people are going to comply, how the situation is going to evolve on the ground," Ataogul said.
"Right now, definitely, the government is limiting fundamental freedoms. It's unquestionable."