Exactly one year since lock-down measures began in Quebec, some 10,000 demonstrators marched in the streets of Montreal last Saturday calling on the Quebec government to end what they called “unnecessary” measures and “abuse of power”.
The March began at the intersection of McGill College and Sherbrooke and came back around to the same spot, near the office of Premier Legault, after a three-hour, 8.5-km trek.
Some protesters even stood on the roof of a tall buildings near the edge, encouraging marchers, over 70 meters below them to carry on.
On the ground, loudspeakers collided as police were announcing COVID-19 safety regulations while several demonstrators encouraged the crowd to shout out “Liberté” (freedom) and other mottos supporting the movement.
Police presence was heavy and included SWAT teams who displayed unorganized aggression towards demonstrators and media alike. Two Suburban reporters, including the Editor-in-Chief, were physically handled by officers while covering the demonstration.
Multiple arrests were made, and multiple tickets were issued.
A group of approximately 12 protesters taunted police officers at every intersection all the way through. At the end of the protest, officers pepper sprayed protesters who increased their taunting tactics to physical violence, by throwing objects at officers.
On March 13, 2020 — the Quebec government announced the first 30-day lock-down. A year later, the measures have increased after morphing from one regulation to another almost incomprehensibly to the general public. Though vaccinations are underway and according to government statistics 296,143 (3.48% of the total Quebec population) have tested positive for the virus since the start of the outbreak in the province, Legault insists that the health care system is overwhelmed, though The Suburban visited multiple hospitals in the city and spoke to ICU designated staff, doctors, nurses and hospital administrators who shared the common viewpoint that there have been no exceptional surges since last April but that the medical system was and is overwhelmed more and more each year regardless of COVID-19 and that the novel virus has highlighted the already existing weaknesses of a broken system.
“Look at the numbers!” one demonstrator said to The Suburban. “We are being called sheep by sheep!” he said.
Many anti-mainstream media signs could be seen at the demonstration and some of the organizers constantly criticized the media via social media, even accusing mainstream media outlets of censorship and manipulating the public.
The Suburban attempted to reach one of the organizers of the protest to no avail, as has been the case throughout the COVID-19 crisis on several occasions, at multiple protests, before and after.
On site, The Suburban spoke with dozens of protesters — many of them are parents who disagree with the provincial government’s regulations on masks for elementary school students, others the curfew and the majority expressed the opinion that they deplore censorship of any kind.
A ceremony was held in Quebec City last Thursday to commemorate the first anniversary of COVID-19 being declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization.
A ceremony was also held by the federal government in Ottawa, and several cities released statements encouraging participation in the remembrance.
In Quebec, 10,518 deaths have been attributed by provincial health officials to COVID-19.
During the ceremony in front of the National Assembly, a procession including Premier François Legault and his wife Isabelle Brais, representatives of all provincial parties and members of civil society laid white roses at a wreath, to remember those who have passed away and to pay tribute to front line health workers, as well as other essential workers.
The procession was accompanied by music, including the Montreal Symphony Orchestra led by conductor emeritus Kent Nagano.
“We’ve been fighting the battle of our lives with COVID-19 for a year together,” Legault told the ceremony. “But once Quebecers became aware of the seriousness of the situation, they acted admirably. The Quebec nation has been admirable.”
Legault also told Quebecers that all will remain affected in some way by the pandemic, but some more than others.
“This day is about the people who left us too soon and their loved ones.... The virus hit us very hard, it hit our seniors... we lost grandmothers, grandfathers, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and friends, and today, Quebec remembers all those who have left us too soon.”
This was followed by a moment of silence.
In Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said, “we honour every parent, child, and friend who lost their life to this disease — and we stand with the people they loved as they continue to cope with this unimaginable loss.
“We also thank our front line workers for all that they’re doing to keep us safe — we owe these everyday heroes an immense debt of gratitude. With their help, and with the help of people across the country, we will get through this. Better days are ahead.”
In St. Laurent, Mayor Alan DeSousa encouraged his residents to “remember each person who was taken away by COVID.
“Let us celebrate the life they lived among us and cherish the impact they will leave on our lives. To my fellow citizens who are mourning their loved ones, my thoughts are with you. Let’s think of those everyday heroes: the members of the healthcare workforce. I thank you for being there for the sick and dying, when their own loved ones couldn’t get to their bedside. Today is a day of mourning and remembrance, but also a reminder that it’s not over yet.”
From Montreal West, Mayor Beny Masella stated that the declaration of the pandemic “sometimes, seems like just yesterday and sometimes it seems like a lifetime ago.
“Though we may feel optimistic as our population is being vaccinated, let’s not lose sight of what we have lost as a society. Those who lost their lives can neither be replaced nor forgotten. And that’s what we primarily need to remember today. [But also] remember the good you witnessed as a community helping its members. Try to remember the bonds you have created or strengthened with your neighbours, friends and family by facing these hard times together. And try to remember that we’re making it through. Maybe not unscathed, but maybe more human.”
In Pointe Claire, Mayor John Belvedere encouraged participation in the remembrance and added that “we want to recognize and celebrate the work of the many people who have provided health care, food and essential services over the past year and continue to do so today.”
Provincial Sports minister Isabelle Charest announced that, with restrictions, gyms and indoor sports complexes in red zones — including Montreal— can reopen on March 26.
The other major COVID-related restriction, indoor dining, is still not allowed.
Charest, according to reports, is taking a gradual approach to reducing restrictions. This means, in gyms, training can only be done in pairs or with family members from the same household. Regarding sports, spectators and competitions are not allowed.
In comparison, according to reports, in orange zones, eight people can train together in gyms.
“The physical distance of two metres must be respected at all times,” whether indoors or outdoors, and if the zone is orange or red, the government announced.
Also, starting March 15, schools in red zones can hold outings and extracurricular activities within a classroom bubble.
Also announced — people 65 and over can make appointments for vaccinations, and those 70 and over can begin making appointments for inoculations in pharmacies as of March 15. The vaccinations will take place the week after.
It started out as yet another ordinary coverage of another demo at a corner where I had covered three others in the past months. It was billed as “La Marche des Insoumis” the “March of the Rebellious.” Some 10,000 Montrealers turned out last Saturday to demonstrate against the masking of young children in schools and against the continuation of the lockdown. Clearly at least half had other agendas, but it was a legal demonstration well advertised weeks in advance.
It had been called for 1pm on a sunny, but bitingly cold day. I arrived early to go to my usual spot to film. It was a three foot high concrete bench at the southeast corner of Sherbrooke and McGill College. The bench was some 30 feet from where the marchers were gathering.
Police presence was heavy. And it included riot police in full gear. I decided to ask a police officer if it was alright to take my usual spot for filming as they surrounded every corner. He was very accommodating and escorted me to it. He raised no question of masks as he saw I had one in my hand in case I went closer to the marchers, and he saw my press pass on a lanyard around my neck. I asked if I need to put it on and he said “No” because I was off the ground and quite a distance from the demonstration.
I adjusted my iPhone extension, set the phone in the bracket and began to film and report. I had set the video in reverse to show viewers the gathering behind me. About a minute into my report two young officers came toward me from the southwest corner waving their hands that I should stop filming. I thought they might be objecting to my filming them so I started to explain that I was filming behind me and not at them.
One of them said — I’ll translate his words here into English — “No, it’s not the film it’s that you’re not wearing a mask and we’re giving you a ticket.” One of them put his hand on my arm and in a pulling motion had me come off the bench. I explained that I didn’t need to wear a mask because I was some 20-30 feet from the march with nobody around me and standing 3 feet in the air and that the first officer had answered that I didn’t need a mask. Furthermore, I explained, I have chronic bronchitis and as such am exempted from wearing a mask. I also pointed out that there is no regulation to wear a mask outdoors. There is one to wear a mask in a demonstration but I wasn’t in the demonstration. He answered, “Pas notre probleme!”
He kept his hand on my upper arm and he and his partner escorted me to the southwest corner where they were joined by a third officer. One of them was named Lamontagne. The three officers spent some ten minutes going through papers demonstrating how to write a ticket on this matter. I tried to remind them that their colleague had escorted me to the site I filmed from because it was far enough away from the marchers. None of the three deigned to answer. They finished writing the ticket, after asking me for photo id, brusquely handed me the ticket and my driver’s license and walked away. My press pass which had my photo on it was not enough identification for them by the way. To add lies to injuries, the infraction read,”refused to obey wearing a mask in a demonstration.” I didn’t refuse. The cops didn’t ask me to put one on. And I wasn’t in the demonstration. I was 30 feet away and 3 feet above the sidewalk.It may interest readers to know that Montreal passed a by-law some years ago making it an offence to be masked during a demonstration.
All this took place within four feet of a supervisor’s squad car. I went over to him and he rolled his window down. I asked if he saw and heard what had just happened. In a very world-weary fashion he said he had. I asked if he had seen his colleague escort me to my original corner without problem. He said he had. I asked if he saw what the two younger officers had just done. He said he had. I asked if he had heard my explanations and complaints. He said he had. Then I asked why didn’t he get out of his car since we were four feet away? His answer? “Don’t worry you can contest it in court or call SPVM Media relations.”
I went back to my original post and started filming and reporting. And what I noticed then was a concerted pattern of behaviour. Officers were going into the crowd — in groups of two, three and more — and taking out people by their arms just to give them tickets. The law does not allow for manhandling of people getting tickets. My colleague, Chelsey St-Pierre, who was covering the march from the eastern end then sent me photos of the same harassment happening there.
After our reports and videos were done I called a senior advisor to Mayor Plante. I was told that the police were warned not to be “stupid” during this march. The advisor certainly felt that the instructions were not followed and is making inquiries.I then called Constable Manuel Couture in charge of media relations for this march. He seemed genuinely taken aback by the events I described — mine and others — and I asked him who gave the orders to the police to act with such harassment and under what authority? Who was in the command center? He has not gotten back to me yet with that answer.
Premier Legault has often called on police to use their “common sense” in applying guidelines. I have sent a suggestion to his office that perhaps it is time for him to make televised remarks and remind them of that again. There was no Police common sense Saturday. There was no respect for law. It was a day of police thuggery. They wanted to flex their muscles. That is not good enough in a free society no matter the cause. Our civil rights cannot be sacrificed on the anvil of Covid. Security authorities are getting too used to exercising power by dictate. That is a very dangerous thing.