Civil Liberties Groups Raise Concerns About New Quebec Curfew

Civil Liberties Groups Raise Concerns About New Quebec Curfew
A police officer checks the identification of a man in a park in Montreal on May 2, 2020, as police patrol the park to make sure people are observing physical distancing protocols amid the pandemic. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)
Justina Wheale

The Quebec government says it trusts police judgement in enforcing the province’s new curfew measures announced on Jan. 7, but civil liberties groups are voicing concern about the move.

This week, Quebec became the first province in Canada to impose a pandemic-related curfew, with premier Francois Legault pointing to the province’s overburdened hospitals as justification for the four-week curfew, to begin Jan. 9.

The curfew will prohibit people from leaving their homes between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m., unless they are going to work or in certain situations deemed “essential,” such as receiving health care or attending night school. Those who break curfew rules could face fines ranging from $ 1,000 to $6,000.

Joanna Baron, executive director of the Canadian Constitution Foundation, says the curfew largely duplicates other measures already in place, offering questionable support in stemming COVID-19 while significantly impacting civil liberties.

“Contacts with people outside of your immediate household are already prohibited, they’re basically just amplifying the spectre of state coercion,” she said in an interview. “So to that extent, it’s an admission of failure in enforcing existing rules.”

Baron says curfews are more appropriate for other types of emergencies such as natural disasters or civil unrest that have an obvious benefit to restricting movement at a certain time, whereas COVID-19 “isn’t more transmissible after 8 p.m.”

“This seems to be a general signalling effort to prompt greater compliance, but it’s an arbitrary limitation on Section 7 [Charter] rights,” she said.

Quebec’s caseload has continued to spike despite existing lockdowns and restrictions, prompting health officials to conclude they needed to crack down further on gatherings in residences. Legault said Jan. 6 that the curfew is a form of “shock treatment'' for Quebecers, who he said need to be jolted into appreciating the seriousness of the health crisis.

Quebec Premier Francois Legault listens to a question during a news conference in Montreal on Dec. 22, 2020. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)
Quebec Premier Francois Legault listens to a question during a news conference in Montreal on Dec. 22, 2020. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Public health director Dr. Horacio Arruda has said the curfew is aimed at reducing the possibility of gatherings and of contact between people overall, saying that gatherings around the Christmas holiday period may have led to an increase in cases.

Cara Zwibel, director of the Fundamental Freedoms Program at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, says the government needs to communicate, using reliable data and evidence from other jurisdictions, why it’s necessary to impose curfews. She notes that punitive measures such as ticketing or fining people appears to have had little impact in slowing the pandemic so far.

“There’s no public health benefit that seems to have come from that approach. That doesn’t seem to have worked in terms of flattening the curve,” Zwibel told The Epoch Times.

“So the question is, what are we trying to accomplish and are we going to see the same tactics needed even though they haven’t proven to be successful in achieving the ultimate goal?”

Zwibel says she is worried the curfew will also unfairly target disadvantaged socio-economic groups—many of whom are already facing outsized challenges during the pandemic—such as shift workers, those can’t work from home, racialized groups, and homeless people.

“It might increase the ability of police to stop people and question them, which gives us cause for concern, because we know that when that happens, there are some people who are traditionally stopped much more regularly than others,” she said.

Zwibel echoed Baron’s sentiments that a curfew is more suited to a “public order crisis” than a public health crisis, and that the police’s main role in the pandemic should be to educate the public, while charges and arrests should be “a last resort.”

‘You Can Be Intercepted at any Time’

Quebec’s Deputy Premier and Public Security Minister Geneviève Guilbault told reporters at a press conference on Jan. 7 that Quebecers who leave their homes after curfew will need to provide a good reason to be outside.

This could include a note from an employer, a receipt from the drug store, or other proof of exception.

“You can be intercepted at any time by a policeman or woman, and you will have to explain what you’re doing,” said Guilbault.

Police keep an eye on social distancing in Montreal on April 3, 2020. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)
Police keep an eye on social distancing in Montreal on April 3, 2020. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

She said police are “used to showing judgment and discernment” and that the province is putting its trust in police to enforce its new curfew measures. Guilbault said she’ll be meeting with public security on Jan. 8 to discuss the details of how police will enforce the new rules, and that it’s possible police presence will be increased during the curfew.

Zwibel says it will be difficult for the province to document all the possible legitimate reasons people may have to be outside their homes after curfew, leading to a grey area of police judgment that could be prone to abuse.

“Questions around what is a legitimate reason has to be spelled out with enough specificity in the regulations so that we don’t allow police officers unlimited discretion to make their own determinations,” she said. “At the same time, I think the government can’t really put in writing every possible exception, so it’s going to be challenging.”

Baron says asking police to enforce a curfew will inevitably lead to greater frequency of “carding” type incidents, where people are stopped, harassed, or documented by police despite no particular offence being investigated. She points to cases of “improper escalation” in recent weeks that have gone viral online, including a 21-year-old man being forcibly detained by Calgary police at an open outdoor skating rink for failing to identify himself, and arrests made at a home in Gatineau on New Year’s eve after a neighbour reported a six-person gathering.

In a tragic recent case, 24-year-old Durham resident Moses Demian reportedly took his own life within 48 hours of being arrested by Toronto Police in Scarborough on Jan. 2, charged with obstructing arrest after a dispute with officers for allegedly failing to identify himself.

With files from The Canadian Press