This past Saturday, thousands of Quebecers marched from Premier Legault’s Montreal office at McGill College and Sherbrooke three kilometres to Maison Radio-Canada in protest against mandatory mask regulations, the stiff fines that go with them, and the possible passage of Bill 61 that would give the Legault administration extraordinary and extrajudicial powers over budgets and taxes for the length of the pandemic without sanction from the National Assembly. The marchers also were protesting any possible mandatory vaccination impositions.The protest was called a “March for Individual Rights and Liberties.”
The Suburban was told by police at the scene that by the time the march had turned onto Bleury south from Sherbrooke and then east on Réné-Levesque, the marchers numbered some 10,000. The protest was organized by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Liberties headed by Stéphane Blais. Though there were no formal speeches, Blais and other organizers made it clear they were not against people wearing masks, but they felt this should be an individual decision and not a government-imposed one coerced with “unconscionable” fines of up to $6,000.
Blais also told The Suburban that no government should have the power that Bill 61 would afford the Legault government. He made reference to the fact that Prime Minister Trudeau tried a similar action several months ago but relented after Parliamentary protests from opposition parties. As for the rumours that governments may impose mandatory vaccinations once a Covid vaccine is produced, he wants lawmakers to remember that this is not in line with Canadian precedent.
He pointed out that only Ontario and New Brunswick have mandated vaccinations and those are only for children about to enroll in schools. The vaccinations are against diphtheria, tetanus, polio, measles, mumps and rubella. Manitoba also has a mandated child vaccination policy against measles. All three provinces allow for exemptions if parents object on religious, medical or simply conscientious grounds.
The protest was timed to coincide with actions by Foundation ally Rocco Galati, a leading civil rights lawyer in Toronto, who has begun to seek court permission in several provinces for class action suits to strike down mandatory mask guidelines as being in violation of Charter of Rights’ protections of individual choice and privacy. The march was peaceful, without incident and had a considerable police presence.
Quebec Education Minister Jean-François Roberge confirmed Monday that students in grades 5 and up must wear face coverings in common areas, hallways, buses, entries and other school locations, but in class they may remove them.
That was one of the adjustments to the government’s return to school plan released in June.
Roberge offered clarity on masks and the sub-grouping, or bubble, concept, which would keep students in small cohorts within classes. “The efficacy of halting the spread was not great enough to counter the constraints on learning” said Roberge. Essentially, he said, “the class is the bubble, the same 20-25 students will remain together.”
Roberge, who highlighted the presence of parent representatives in the room, says he understand parents’ apprehension. “Letting schools close is not protecting our children… We have to learn new ways to do things. They need to see their friends, their teachers. They need to socialize and develop.” The minister says the experience of the reopened schools outside the Montreal region last spring “shows we can offer a safe education.” Quebec Public Health Director Dr. Horacio Arruda agreed: “Keeping kids away from school is more harmful than the effects of Covid-19.”
Roberge said masks are not mandatory in class because they affect learning, of which easy communication and expression are important parts. Arruda says wearing a mask all day is already challenging for adults and older students, but for younger children, the decision to not impose masks was done with a good “balance of risks.”
Roberge added that in-class physical distancing is not required, and that one meter will suffice while wearing masks outside the class, adding that measures previously in place remain so, including accessing different doors in the building to minimize crowding, staggered recess, frequent hand-washing and accessibility to sanitizers.
He says for kids with a health problem validated by a doctor and linked to Covid, or a vulnerable family member, “students will have the right to remote learning, and the service centre will guarantee distance learning, which means receiving homework and follow up by teachers.”
If an entire school must close, parents will never again face the notion of simply “being out of luck,” referencing the widespread experience of many Quebec families last spring when some schools went full speed ahead and some teachers responded immediately. Scores of students however, were not as fortunate, many left without guidance, or adequate contact by their schools, receiving little support and confusing kits of platforms and assignments.
“There is a guarantee of quality,” he said. “With clear guidelines: If we close a high school for example, all students will have 15 hours of courses per week, and two hours a day to ask teachers questions.”
He also iterated that if any child tests positive for Covid at school, parents will be notified whether the affected student is in their child’s class or not. “This is not to create panic but to be transparent and encourage parents to watch more closely for symptoms.”
Finally, there will be a big boost in the consistency and uniformity of communications, and that all Quebec parents will have the same information, instructions to follow and contact information, “available in French and English for those who want it.”
While face coverings and other gear will be supplied to personnel, for students it’s the parents’ responsibility said the minister. “Just like a piece of clothing, it’s something that is mandatory if they accompany their parents to a grocery store or if they ride a bus. Parents are responsible to supply it.” However, he added that for vulnerable families the government will work with community organizations to make sure those who do need help securing masks get them.
“I’m a father too and I want to see my children go back to school, safely,” he said. “We want to ensure catch up for students and to continue teaching the Quebec education plan,” adding that it’s all possible because of the professionalism of teachers and school staff.
“Thanks to the June plan schools are almost there in terms of the administrative process, and now we’re just waiting for the teachers.”
For full details of the plan, visit https://www.quebec.ca/en/education/back-to-school-plan-fall-covid-19/