MONTREAL — Quebec's announcement that it would tax unvaccinated residents sparked strong reaction and pushed Canadian premiers to take a position on it, but the province's official Opposition says it's unconvinced the government will go ahead with its threat.
Describing Quebec Premier François Legault's plan as a "trial balloon," Liberal health critic Monsef Derraji said Wednesday he thinks the idea will be abandoned the way the province dropped its plan to force health-care workers to get the jab or be suspended without pay.
"It will take four weeks, six weeks and they will say, 'Listen guys, I tried to do my best to push people to take the vaccine and it's not realistic and we should forget this idea because it's bad,'" Derraji said in an interview.
On Tuesday, Legault said he planned to make the unvaccinated pay a "significant" financial penalty. The unvaccinated, Legault added, occupy a disproportionate number of hospital beds and should be required to pay an additional contribution to the health-care system.
But Quebec's unvaccinated have been here before. The government in November cancelled its vaccine mandate for health-care workers, arguing that going through with the measure would have hurt the health system.
Derraji said Tuesday's announcement will end the same way. It was a distraction, he said, aimed at drawing attention away the resignation the night prior of Dr. Horacio Arruda as public health director and from the resumption on Monday of in-person classes in the province's schools, a decision Derraji said the government hasn't sufficiently prepared for.
And while the Liberals are skeptical the government will follow through on its threat, activists in the province say that even if the tax is implemented, it won't have the required effect.
Michel Lachance, an unvaccinated paramedic northeast of Montreal, is one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the provincial government's vaccine mandate for health-care workers. He described the proposed tax as a "coercion tactic" that would work against a minority of unvaccinated people — low-income Quebecers afraid of having to pay the penalty.
"Frankly, out of the unvaccinated, I would say it's going to be less that one per cent who will go," he said in an interview Wednesday.
Richard Girgis, an activist with a group called Courage Québec, which advocates against many of the government's COVID-19 health orders, said he thinks Legault's threat will only further polarize people who have not been vaccinated.
"It's just a punishment. It's a straight up punishment to satisfy a subset of (Legault's) supporters that want to see us segregated and destroyed," Girgis said.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Wednesday that while he supports measures to encourage vaccination, he needs more details before taking a stance on Quebec's plan to tax the unvaccinated.
"The details will be important in how this works, how it balances the values and the rights that we all cherish as Canadians with the necessity of keeping people safe," Trudeau told reporters in Ottawa. "Vaccines are about keeping Canadians safe. Various orders of government are right to look at different ways of encouraging and incentivizing people to get vaccinated."
Federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos told reporters he too is waiting on the details from Quebec, adding that vaccination is the way out of the pandemic.
"We have demonstrated at the federal level that vaccine mandates also work — almost 99 per cent of public servants at the federal level are either fully vaccinated or soon to be fully vaccinated," he said.
The premiers of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario said they wouldn't be following Quebec's lead.
In Alberta, Jason Kenney said Tuesday night in a Facebook town hall meeting that Quebec's plan is "completely rubbishing the whole principle of universality of health care.”
In Regina, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe told reporters that while he wasn't considering it, Quebec is "free to look into that. We're not doing that here."
Ontario Premier Doug Ford said he also wasn't considering the measure, while the province's chief medical officer of health said it wasn't something he would recommend. "It's not one that we would bring forward," Dr. Kieran Moore told reporters. "It does, in my mind, seem punitive. We have always been supportive of adults making informed decisions for vaccination and have tried to increase availability and accessibility."
Earlier Wednesday, Quebec reported 52 more deaths linked to the pandemic and a rise of 135 COVID-19-related hospitalizations. The Health Department said 2,877 people were in hospital with the disease, including 263 in intensive care.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 12, 2022.
— With files from Holly McKenzie-Sutter in Toronto, Mickey Djuric in Regina and Dean Bennett in Edmonton.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press