We have been pleased to use this space to praise Premier Legault’s handling of the Covid crisis here in Quebec. He has rolled out urgent measures with resolve and conviction and less pressing ones with a gradualism that allowed all of us to properly acclimatize and not give in to panic. When he announced support programs for workers and employers the websites were ready, the money allocated and the documentation prepared and in the hands of agencies and bankers. Mr. Legault has run things in an efficient and business-like manner. Quebec’s morbidity and mortality rates are among the best in the western world. And Quebec has been testing at twice the rate of most of Canada.
However, throughout history, successful public policy is sometimes undone by reaching too far. There is at times an imperative that builds — in a crisis -where public officials feel they must do something — anything — just to feed the news cycle. Just to appear to be doing something. This past week some decisions were taken and others considered that not only go too far, but threaten to undo the gradualism that has kept panic from the minds of most. These decisions if not abridged, will not only fuel panic but prey on the fears of an already unsteady population. They are also unnecessary. And they threaten, in Churchill’s words, “...to destroy what we most seek to protect...” We need to recognize our society when this is all over and not lose the end game.
It started with the decision to send SQ units to border crossings and stop returning travellers from the States. SQ officers would take down information from travellers, note their personal information and tell them to self-isolate for 14 days. But then Quebec City police used cellphone tracking — without warrant — to find a Covid positive resident and bring her back home because she had allegedly violated an order to self-isolate. Quebec City’s police chief Robert Pigeon said that “geolocation” is “absolutely at our disposal” to track a suspect. A spokesman for Quebec’s public prosecutor’s office, Jean-Pascal Boucher, would not comment on whether police had the right to geolocate people without a warrant.
Several days after that, Premier Legault admitted that provincial police had proposed using data from cell phones and other devices to locate people. But, he said, those tracking methods haven’t been authorized for the provincial police yet. “In the short term … we don’t have the intention to use it. But, if the situation is different in one week or two weeks, will we accept the proposal from the Surete du Quebec? Maybe.” Dominique Peschard, of La Ligue des droits et libertes, said he doesn’t see why a judge can’t be assigned to review applications by police for cell phone data surveillance — even during the current state of emergency. However, provincial police spokesman Guy Lapointe said that under the public health emergency, officers do not need a warrant signed by a judge to track people using geolocation. This is a disconnect that Premier Legault must reign in. He should take the lead from Montreal human rights lawyer Pearl Eliadis who told the National Post that despite the emergency orders, “the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms has not disappeared.”
Montreal’s Mayor Valerie Plante held a news conference a few days later with Montreal Police Chief Sylvain Caron expanding Montreal’s State of Emergency she had declared 48 hours earlier. At that press conference, Chief Caron announced that his service, would be giving out fines to businesses and individuals who failed to comply with provincial guidelines on staying closed and respecting physical distancing. The fines would range from $1000 to $6000. But what stunned everyone was that he confirmed that the police would enter people’s private homes if they received calls from someone who alleged a “gathering” at a residence. Caron did not define gathering but also said that police would do so without benefit of warrant. Plante confirmed that they had taken these decisions after consultations with Quebec City.
The next day Premier Legault held his daily briefing in which he said that he was asking all police departments to be “less tolerant” of businesses and individuals who did not follow provincial guidelines in closures, self-isolation and physical distancing. He confirmed the fines would be steep starting at $1000.
The day after that, the Premier announced a quarantine of eight rural regions of Quebec. Two days later he announced another four regions would be quarantined including the Laurentians and the Outaouais. The next morning we were treated to scenes of SQ officers stopping Montrealers on the Laurentian Autoroute who were going to their country homes. Finally, this past Saturday Quebec issued a notice that “neighbourhood” travel restrictions were in place in Montreal accompanied by severe fines.
These extensions of the Lockdown go too far. They will result in nothing but state sanctioned harassment. In the case of neighbourhoods, the harassment of visible minorities. Someone must explain to us how they will judge where CDN/NDG ends and Montreal begins. Travel prohibitions between neighbourhoods in addition to Charter-shattering police powers to enter homes and track people by their cellphones without warrant are unenforceable and unconstitutional. And surprising, given that Premier Legault congratulated Quebecers on their “discipline” in respecting the isolation and distancing guidelines and pointing out that even Google ranked Quebec in top place among all western jurisdictions for respecting guidelines. We make sacrifices now to stop the spread, and for the 8% of us who may test positive and particularly for the 5% of the 8 % who may need hospitalization. But the sacrifice we need to make to stand on guard for our liberties and reason is for us all. And for the future.
We in the media have been deemed an essential service. But what is most essential about us is the duty to remind people that they have to protect a society they can recognize on the other side of this and the responsibility to keep the state in check. As Benjamin Franklin wrote,”Those who would trade permanent liberty for temporary security shall in the end have neither liberty nor security.”