Quebec to table bill banning anti-vaccine protests near schools and hospitals

By Jacob Serebrin and Caroline Plante, The Canadian Press

MONTREAL — Quebec Premier Francois Legault says he plans to table a bill Thursday that would ban anti-vaccine protests near schools and hospitals, and the three main opposition parties say they are willing to help adopt it quickly.

Legault told reporters Wednesday morning the bill would be presented to his caucus later in the day, adding that he hoped to have the support of all opposition parties to pass it by the end of Thursday. He said the bill would include fines for people who “are going to hold anti-vaccine protests” close to schools and hospitals.

“It doesn’t make sense to have anti-vaccine protests in front of places that are for our children or our patients,” Legault said Wednesday during question period at the legislature.

Since classes resumed last month, at least five protests have taken place outside primary and secondary schools in Montreal. Protests have also occurred outside hospitals.

Earlier Wednesday, the three main opposition parties said it’s unacceptable that protesters are approaching children in an attempt to discourage them from following health orders and getting vaccinated. They said they were ready to work with the government to pass the bill quickly.

READ: Canadian anti-vaccine protests moving away from hospitals: organizer

Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, the spokesperson for the Quebec solidaire party, said he supports the proposed legislation but doesn’t want it to ban other types of protests outside schools, such as demonstrations by parents who support public education.

For the bill to pass quickly, however, it would need the support of the province’s lone Conservative party member, Claire Samson, who has not said whether she would back it.

“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?”

Heidi Yetman, president of the Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers, says she supports the right to protest but 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.”

Yetman said when teachers demonstrate in front of schools they follow specific guidelines, including staying off school property and not blocking access to buildings.

Pearl Eliadis, a human rights lawyer who teaches at McGill University, said Quebec has had a law in place since 2016 barring people from protesting within 50 metres of abortion clinics. A law banning anti-vaccine protests in front of schools and hospitals would limit the constitutional right to peaceful assembly, she explained.

“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. In this case it’s very much about space and place and the capacity to occupy physical space.”

If the law were to be challenged, she added, the government would have to demonstrate that the legislation presents a reasonable limit on the right to peaceful assembly. It would also have to include a clear boundary or perimeter within which protesters can’t assemble.

The bill would be much more likely to withstand constitutional scrutiny, Eliadis said, if it restricts protests of a certain nature _ like anti-vaccine demonstrations _ as opposed to banning all gatherings within a certain boundary of schools and hospitals.

Meanwhile, Quebec reported 683 new cases of COVID-19 Wednesday and five additional deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus. The Health Department said the number of hospitalizations rose by six, to 280, and 91 people were in intensive care, an rise of five from the day before.

The province’s public health institute said 89 per cent of Quebec residents 12 and over have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 84.5 per cent are considered adequately vaccinated.

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