QUEBEC — The Quebec legislature rapidly adopted a bill Thursday banning protests related to the COVID-19 pandemic within 50 metres of schools, daycares, and health-care facilities.
The bill was introduced earlier in the day and passed unanimously after a few hours of debate.
Under the law, demonstrations of "any manner" near protected institutions are prohibited if they are related to the health orders issued under the COVID-19 state of emergency, vaccination against the novel coronavirus or "any other recommendation issued by public health authorities in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic."
Adult education centres and junior colleges were added to the list of protected places at the suggestion of Liberal member Marwah Rizqy. The government also accepted an amendment introduced by Québec solidaire member Andrés Fontecilla specifying that the law doesn't apply to employees of protected institutions, who are allowed to protest for better working conditions.
Public Security Minister Geneviève Guilbault, who introduced the bill, said the law would apply to parents protesting for better ventilation at their children's school because that issue is related to COVID-19.
The law came following several recent protests outside Quebec schools and hospitals against COVID-19 vaccination and health orders.
In a post on Facebook Thursday morning, Premier François Legault said he understands that restricting the right to protest is a delicate matter, "but, frankly, there are limits."
"What is perhaps most shocking for me is imagining how our nurses feel to see this," he added. "Those women and men have worked tirelessly for months to care for people sick with COVID despite difficult working conditions."
People who violate the ban can face fines of between $1,000 and $6,000, with the penalty doubled if they threaten or intimidate anyone who is entering or leaving one of the sites specified in the bill. An amendment to the bill means 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.
Earlier in the day, the sole elected member of the Quebec Conservative party, Claire Samson, said she had concerns about the law and needed more information.
"I'm taking this very seriously, but I need some time," she said. "I need to ask my questions, I need some answers and I need to propose some amendments." Samson said she was concerned the law didn't have an expiration date. Despite her concerns, Samson ultimately supported the adoption of the bill.
The bill has also faced criticism from the Ligue des droits et libertés, a Quebec civil liberties group. In a statement on Thursday, the group said the law creates an "undue restriction on the right to protest," adding that existing laws guaranteeing access to schools and hospitals — as well as the Criminal Code — are sufficient.
"Everyone can exercise their right to freedom of expression and their right to demonstrate, even if the message is unpopular," Catherine Descoteaux, the group's coordinator said in a statement.
Quebec reported 754 new cases of COVID-19 Thursday and seven additional deaths linked to the novel coronavirus. Hospitalizations rose by three, to 283, with 90 patients in intensive care.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 23, 2021.
— With files from Jacob Serebrin in Montreal.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Caroline Plante, The Canadian Press