Quebec Study Finds No Correlation Between ‘Punitive’ Pandemic Response and Case Reduction

Quebec Study Finds No Correlation Between ‘Punitive’ Pandemic Response and Case Reduction
Police officers walk toward demonstrators protesting against curfew measures in front of Quebec Deputy Premier and Public Security Minister Genevieve Guilbault's office in Quebec City on April 13, 2021. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)
Isaac Teo

The Quebec government issued tens of thousands of fines to residents for not complying with its pandemic restrictions, but a new report finds that this “punitive” approach did not necessarily slow the spread of COVID-19.

“Québec chose to turn the public health crisis into a public safety crisis, managed with 46,563 police interventions,” concluded the report, conducted by four researchers from the University of Montreal’s Profiling Observatory (l’Observatoire des profilages) and released on March 10.

“Our report shows that 46,563 statements of offence were issued with regard to the health measures between September 21, 2020, and October 3, 2021. This means that on average, more than 123 statements of offence were issued per day in Québec by police forces during this period.”

Specifically, the report analyzed infractions related to COVID-19 measures, including gathering limits, curfews, mask mandates, and proof of vaccination.

The authors noted that the number of infractions jumped in the winter and spring months of 2021. From an average of 206 per week between Sept. 21, 2020, and Jan. 3, 2021, the number rose to 1,093 in January, February and March, and peaked at 2,232 in April and May that year.

Quebec’s first curfew was imposed starting Jan. 9, 2021, and lifted on May 28, 2021.

To put the infraction numbers into context, the authors juxtaposed the figures with the weekly new COVID-19 cases reported. Their analysis showed that the two datasets do not correlate.

“We found that the pattern of changes in the number of statements of offence does not necessarily follow the pattern of changes in the epidemiological situation,” they wrote.

For example, the number of new COVID-19 cases peaked at 17,827 during the week of Dec. 28, 2020, but the number of tickets issued per week was “quite low at that time,” at 271.

While the number of new cases decreased steadily during the winter and spring of 2021, the number of infractions continued to increase during the period, averaging about 2,000 per week.

The authors cautioned against drawing conclusions between the two datasets.

“It can be assumed that the rationale for issuing statements of offence is to punish and deter those who do not comply with public health rules, in order to reduce contacts and possibly the number of COVID-19 cases,” the report said.

“The data do not make it possible for us to measure the effect, or lack of effects, of the issuance of statements of offence on the number of COVID-19 cases, nor the deterrent effect of the imposition of criminal sanctions on behaviour.”

But the study criticized the Quebec government for relying on police repression and criminal law to force compliance to its pandemic restrictions.

“This stems from a political choice and not from an unavoidable obligation to ‘flatten the curve,’” it said.

The authors added that the “punitive approach and repressive discourse” of pitting the “minority” who were recalcitrant to the measures against the “majority” who complied “have had the effect of stigmatizing part of the population and creating significant division, rather than strengthening solidarity.”

Citing a report by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) and the Policing the Pandemic Mapping Project (PPMP) in June 2020, the authors said Quebec’s pandemic response has been one of the harshest in the country.

The CCLA and PPMP report stated that between April 1, 2020, and June 15, 2020, more than 10,000 tickets were issued or charges laid relating to COVID-19 across Canada, resulting in fines amounting to over $13 million at the time.

“The vast majority of COVID-related fines—a full 98% of the national total—have been issued in just three provinces: Quebec (6,600 COVID-related charges, 77% of the total dollar amount of fines), Ontario (2,853 charges, 18%) and Nova Scotia (555 charges, 3%),” the report said.

The authors cited another report by the two organizations released in May 2021, which stated that Quebec’s rate of infractions was one of the highest among five other provinces from October 2020 to February 2021.

While Ontario, B.C., and Nova Scotia had ticketing rates between 0.21 and 0.28 per 1,000 residents, Quebec had a rate of 0.51, just behind Manitoba at 0.69.