Quebec Premier François Legault announced today “with a heavy heart” (as he put it), that the provincial government is placing the Greater Montreal Region (including Laval and the South Shore), the Quebec City region and the Chaudière-Appalaches region on Code Red due to the increase in COVID-19 cases. This takes effect midnight on Wednesday (early morning Thursday) and means:

  • A ban on home gatherings (with a few exceptions)
  • Bars and casinos must close
  • Restaurants must be takeout or delivery only
  • Movie theatres, libraries and museums must close
  • Houses of worship and funeral homes will have a 25 person limit
  • Being less than two meters apart will be prohibited
  • Masks must be worn at demonstrations

It’s interesting to note that schools will remain open. According to Legault, this is so parents can still go to work. As such, businesses like hair salons and hotels will remain open.

We are in the midst of a global pandemic. COVID-19 is ravaging the United States and the European Union and other countries are slowly easing their lockdown restrictions as doctors, epidemiologists, paramedics, and other essential workers scramble to get it under control.

As a member of the immune-compromised I have been extremely careful. I haven’t been to a store, restaurant, or bar in months, and I don’t let anyone in my home unless they wash their hands, remove their shoes, and keep two meters apart during their visit. When I go out, it’s always straight to a car and to a private home where I am extra careful to minimize physical contact and wash my hands regularly. When I’m in any public space, however briefly, I always wear a mask.

That said, while it is highly unlikely that I have COVID-19, it’s not impossible. I am having flu-like symptoms that started with a mild sore throat and a little chest congestion.

After mulling it over, I decided to bite the bullet and get myself tested yesterday. If you’re having any cold or flu-like symptoms, have been to a bar recently, or come in contact with anyone who tested positive for COVID-19, you should get tested too.

Not sure how? I’m here to help.

This article is about how to get tested for COVID-19 in Quebec and what to expect. I hope you’ll be encouraged to at the very least get assessed to see if being tested is necessary. We’re all in this together, so let’s keep each other safe and informed.

First step is to call one of the Quebec government’s COVID-19 information lines, depending on your region. Not sure if you should get tested? Tell the phone operator and they will transfer you to a nurse who will assess you.

If she thinks you need to get tested for COVID-19, she will ask you for your postal code, find the nearest test center, and book you an appointment that best fits your schedule. You will also need to provide your phone number, Medicare number, and email address.

You should get an appointment confirmation by email almost immediately. You can also expect to get multiple reminders by text message in the day or two before the appointment. They will give you the option of cancelling your appointment online.

While it’s not my place to tell anyone what to do, I will say that it is better to know one way or the other than to not know if you have COVID-19, so keep that appointment.

Bring a mask with you and be prepared to wait in line outside the test centre. The one closest to me was at 5800 Cote des Neiges in Montreal, in a sort of construction trailer in the parking lot of the Jewish General Hospital. Every once in a while someone in full mask and protection gear will come out and ask if anyone has an appointment. If you do, they will call you in.

Once inside, you are immediately required to put on a fresh mask and sanitize your hands. Then you are sent to a waiting area with chairs divided by walls to ensure social distancing.

You’ll feel a bit like a sideshow display, but it’s comfortable. The ambiance of the test centre feels like the pop up lab the government set up in the movie ET and you will be required to sanitize your hands nearly every step of the way.

After a few minutes, the worker who called you in will sanitize the phone allowing you to speak to the administrator who is protected by a wall with a window, not unlike the setup in some prisons. You are required to press your Medicare card to the window for the admin worker who will register you, which includes confirming your email address and emergency contacts. They will ask if you’re ok getting a negative result by email as well.

You are then sent back to the waiting area. I cannot vouch for wait times, as I know they vary, but I was called in less than thirty minutes.

A nurse in full protective gear will then bring you to a room near the exit. Another nurse similarly dressed will be seated at a computer and will ask you questions about travel, who you have been in contact with, and what your symptoms are. They will then give you a sheet with a number you can call if you don’t get your results in two to five days and your file number.

If the results are negative you will get an email. If they’re positive, expect a phone call.

Then the dreaded moment comes: the nurse asks you to lower your mask below your nose, holds out a giant flexible swab, and tells you to tilt your head back.

You know that expression “Mind if I pick your brain”? That’s exactly what the test itself feels like. You think that swab can’t possibly go further up your nose, that there simply isn’t room, and yet it does.

However, the test is quick, and the nurses are as gentle with administering such an uncomfortable test as can be. Just when you think you can’t take it anymore, the swab is out and you’re free to go with your information sheet and instructions to self-isolate for five days.

You are warned that the phone call when and if it comes will say “Private Number” in your caller ID and won’t leave a message. A healthcare worker will then instruct you to sanitize your hands immediately before you go out the exit. You are then free to go home to self-isolation.

That said, if you are having any symptoms resembling a cold, flu, or sinus infection and/or have been anywhere or in contact with anyone that puts you at risk of catching COVID-19, get yourself tested. The comfort of knowing one way or the other far outweighs the speedy discomfort of the test itself.

We’re all in this together. Stay safe, stay sane, wear a mask, and wash your hands.

Featured image by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Effective immediately, Quebec bars must stop selling alcohol at midnight and all patrons must leave by 1am instead of staying open to the normal 3am. They must also limit capacity to 50% of what is indicated on their liquor permit.

Quebec Minister of Health and Social Services Christian Dubé made the announcement today alongside National Public Health Director Horacio Arruda. He pointed to the 130 new COVID-19 cases, an increase, as well as an outbreak that happened at a bar in Brossard on the South Shore of Montreal as reasoning.

The government is also asking bar owners to take down the names and phone numbers of customers who visit so Public Health can call them if someone who tested positive was in the same bar they were at the same time. This is a voluntary registry, and a seemingly ad-hoc one at that for the moment, but Dubé isn’t ruling out making an official version.

Police will be stationed in high traffic areas to make sure bars are following the new rules. Dubé said it will be easier than going into each establishment to ensure social distancing.

Both Dubé and Arruda said that this approach also serves as a reminder that despite the nice weather and deconfinement, the pandemic is not over.

Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante announced on social media today that the city is working on a bylaw that will require everyone to wear a mask when in enclosed indoor public spaces as of July 27th. There will be fines for businesses and individuals caught breaking the bylaw after that date.

The Quebec Government made mask wearing mandatory on public transit last week. This latest move by Montreal builds on that and was spurred, according to Plante, by outbreaks of COVID-19 off-island and the current situation in the US.

Plante explained to Le Téléjournal that while the bylaw will apply to bars and restaurants, people will, of course, be able to remove their masks when eating and drinking. The mayor said the city consulted with bar and restaurant owners as well as other merchants before making the announcement.

The bylaw will not apply to private shared spaces like the common areas of apartment buildings or office towers. The Quebec Government is working on regulations or recommendations for those spaces.

While it will take three weeks to work out all the specifics and make sure people are properly notified before the bylaw goes into effect, Plante hopes Montrealers will start acting like it’s already a reality and wear masks when indoors in public. As the mayor told CBC, the bylaw will be re-evaluated on a monthly basis.

UPDATE: The Quebec Government has reversed its decision to only release data weekly and will instead continue to release it on a daily basis.

Yesterday, the Quebec Government announced that it will no longer be publishing daily numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths as it has been since the beginning of the pandemic. They will still be collecting data but only releasing it to the public on a weekly basis.

Today, at a press conference in Montreal, Quebec’s National Public Health Director Dr. Horacio Arruda assured reporters that the data will still be looked at on a daily basis and if there was urgent information that needs to be communicated, it will be. Also, if the numbers start rising, they will go back to daily updates.

Arruda also announced the deconfinement of most of the remaining sectors of the economy. Bars, amusement parks, casinos, spas, water parks and hotels can now re-open while festivals and other large events, overnight camps and combat-related sporting events cannot.

Arruda stressed that these businesses must impose social distancing restrictions, in particular the two-meter rule. He also encouraged wearing masks as much as possible and didn’t rule out reconfinement if COVID numbers spike.

There will undoubtedly be some changes in how some businesses operate. For example, Arruda mentioned that bar patrons will need to remain seated as much as possible and not move around, much like restaurants, so probably no dance floor either.

Small outdoor gatherings in backyards or parks will be permitted in Quebec as of this Friday, May 22nd. They can have no more than ten people who come from a maximum of three households

Quebec Deputy Premier Geneviève Guilbault, sitting in for Premier François Legault at the government’s daily COVID-19 briefing, made the announcement and stressed that we were not at the stage where parties and indoor gatherings could start up again. While she understands that, in some cases, guests may go indoors to use the washroom or change a baby, she urged people to not move indoors as a group when it gets late and colder, instead people should head home.

Guilbault also said that people who don’t live together need to maintain two meter distance from each other at these gatherings and urged people to wear masks when not at home as much as possible. This change may be reversed if a new outbreak happens and is Quebec-wide.

Home healthcare providers province-wide will also be able to resume operations as of June 1. Same for personal care businesses such as hair salons everywhere in Quebec outside of the Greater Montreal Area and Joliette.

Guilbault said that a re-opening date for personal care businesses in Montreal and Joliette will follow. Non-essential retail businesses not located in shopping malls or with a private street entrance will be allowed to re-open in the Greater Montreal Area this coming Monday, May 25.

Watch the full press conference with Guilbault and National Director of Public Health Horacio Arruda

Quebec Premier François Legault is in Montreal today. Speaking alongside Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante, Quebec’s National Director for Public Health Horacio Arruda, Public Health Regional Director Mylène Drouin and Transport Minister François Bonnardel, he announced that Montreal-area schools won’t re-open until the fall.

Primary schools across Quebec, excluding the Greater Montreal Area, re-opened on Monday, with Montreal expected to follow on May 25th provided COVID-19 numbers were dropping on par with World Health Organization criteria for deconfinement. With over 20 000 people infected, they aren’t and Montreal has become Canada’s epicenter for the virus, so it will be late August and September before any schools re-open here.

Pushing re-opening back a few weeks only to close them when the school year ends mid-June would have made no sense according to Legault. Daycares that don’t run on the same school year may re-open June 1, provided Coronavirus containment conditions are met.

Non-essential retail businesses not located in malls or in malls with a separate street entrance in Montreal could possibly re-open on May 25th as planned. That date may, of course, be pushed back.

When they do re-open, though, there will inevitably be more people using public transit. Legault announced that Quebec will assist Montreal in providing masks for commuters, which Plante welcomed.

The Premier and his colleagues have been recommending people wear face coverings whenever they leave their home for a few days now, and in particular when they ride public transit. While they won’t rule out making masks mandatory on transit at some point in the future, we’re not there yet.

We are in the midst of a global pandemic due to the Corona virus aka COVID-19. Montreal is not only the epicenter of the outbreak in Quebec, but in all of Canada.

In a move that Montrealers have been begging for since Quebec Premier François Legault announced his harebrained idea of reopening the province on May 11, he has agreed to delay reopening schools and businesses in Montreal until May 25, 2020, and only if the situation here has improved. The decision was made in consultation with Dr. Horacio Arruda, Quebec’s National Director of Public Health.

Parents in Montreal can finally breathe a sigh of relief, as reopening too early would only lead to a resurgence of the disease that would overwhelm hospitals already overworked and rapidly reaching capacity. David McLeod told this reporter that if elementary schools did reopen in Montreal on May 19 as planned he and his wife would not be sending their son:

“If we did it would be a prison we would be sending him to, not a school. It is a place for people to park their kids.”

Wendy, a mother with diabetes, had also decided to keep her son at home, declaring that he is not a guinea pig for the government. She worries that her son would pass the virus on to her with fatal results.

Parents were not the only ones worried. Educators in Montreal, who agreed to speak to me on condition of anonymity, were deeply concerned about the health, sanitation, and logistical nightmare of reopening the schools and daycares.

“It takes the whole summer for administration to organize class kits and teacher schedules. It’s not as simple as putting a teacher in a room with 8-15 kids,” said an elementary school teacher. “The school buses usually have 60-80 kids and now they’ll be only 12 kids on one bus…will there be enough busses for everyone?”

She expressed concern that keeping a two meter distance from students would make it harder for teachers to help them, adding that the problem would be worse for kids with ADHD.

A Montreal high school teacher expressed concern that Legault’s plan lacked clarity. She countered the Premier’s claim of reopening the schools for students’ mental health by pointing out that kids have more freedom of movement if they stay home. She also says it’s still not clear whether teaching high school has to be face-to-face or if content can just be posted for students to look at at their own speed.

“Lucy” a daycare educator, told me her loved ones were terrified of her going back to work. The stress of staying clean and safe scares her too, comparing a return to work to “going to war with no gun”.

“Mary”, another daycare educator thinks even reopening Montreal on May 25th is ridiculous.

“You know there’s been an outbreak in a daycare, right?” she said, referring to the recent COVID-19 outbreak at a daycare in Montreal North. “We will be wearing visors at my daycare. Can you imagine a child coming in after months and meeting a monster with a blue face and visors? I don’t see how this will not be damaging to the child,” she said.

As a member of the immune-compromised in one of the hardest hit boroughs in Montreal I have my own worries about what reopening schools will mean for my personal safety. I live within walking distance of two elementary schools, one high school, and one school for students with special needs.

My chronic medical conditions put me on the “Most Likely to Die from COVID-19” list, thus making leaving my home incredibly unsafe until the virus is contained. Reopening the schools would make it more likely that I could fall victim to the pandemic, and with hospitals overcrowded, there’s no guarantee I’d get the help I need.

Even former Montreal Canadien Georges Laraque sees the absurdity of the Quebec government’s initial decision, and though he himself has COVID-19, he was live streaming about his experience in our health care system from his hospital room.

Some parents are calling the change of heart a lot more sensible. Others think Legault’s initial plan of reopening Montreal was a business-oriented decision that showed the lack common sense people have come to expect from his government.

Whatever the reason, Montreal can at least be thankful that common sense has prevailed and that active resistance works. We just have to be loud enough.

Schools and non-essential retail businesses across Quebec are re-opening today, except those in the Greater Montreal Area. While schools in the 514, 438 and 450 area codes are on track to re-open in two weeks, Montreal-area businesses will not re-open on May 11th as planned, but May 18th.

Quebec Premier François Legault announced during the government’s regular COVID-19 briefing today that he was pushing back re-opening Montreal because Montreal-area hospitals were getting crowded. He noted that there are still beds available in Quebec’s largest city and coronavirus epicenter, but not enough to re-open in a week.

This decision comes amid a rise in virus transmission in Montreal Nord. Legault said that there is not enough leeway in Montreal to deconfine as planned as there is in other regions of Quebec.

He also updated his original two world view. Now, Legault says there are three Quebecs: inside seniors’ residences, Montreal and everywhere else.

Re-opening the manufacturing and construction sectors are happening as planned, even in the Greater Montreal Area.

Quebec will be re-opening some parts of its economy during the month of May. The province, at this point, will not be relaxing social distancing rules imposed because of the COVID-19 pandemic overall and will impose new regulations on businesses when the re-open.

Quebec Premier François Legault announced the plan in general at the government’s daily press briefing before passing it over to Pierre Fitzgibbon, Minister of Economic Development, Innovation and Export Trade with the details. So far there are three sectors re-opening:

  • Retail Stores: Retail businesses that are not located inside a shopping mall or businesses inside a mall but with a separate entrance will be allowed to open on May 4th across Quebec with the exception of the Greater Montreal Area and on May 11th in Montreal and its surroundings. Stores will remain closed on Sundays until May 31st.
  • Manufacturing: Manufacturing businesses across Quebec can open May 11th. Businesses with 50 or fewer employees working per day can re-open with full staff. Those with over 50 daily employees can open with 50 employees plus half the remaining staff. On May 25th, manufacturing businesses can open with full staff regardless of the size of the staff.
  • Construction: Construction businesses across Quebec can re-open May 11th.

Legault repeated remarks he made yesterday when talking about re-opening some schools as a justification for re-opening parts of the economy with COVID deaths and hospitalizations still on the rise. While situation is still dire in seniors’ residences, the population overall, excluding that sector, has been flattening the curve.

No word yet on when sit-down restaurants, bars, gyms and other businesses where social distancing could prove difficult may re-open. The government did say that they will be making other announcements at later dates.

Last week, the Montreal Fringe Festival, the Jazz Festival and Les Francofolies all announced that their 2020 editions were cancelled and earlier today the Montreal Grand Prix announced it wouldn’t happen in June. They’re now not the only May and June events cancelled or postponed due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The City of Montreal announced today that all festivals, sporting events and public events are cancelled until July 2nd. Even if Quebec succeeds in flattening the curve and non-essential businesses are allowed to re-open May 4th as currently planned and more social distancing rules are relaxed in the subsequent weeks, June will look much different in the city known in the summer as Festi-Ville.

This not only means that there won’t be any outdoor concerts or bike races, but there also won’t be any Saint Jean Baptiste or Canada Day celebrations, at least not official ones. Whether or not people will be allowed to celebrate on their own, either at private parties or on Mount Royal, depends entirely on how well we do flattening the curve.

Yesterday, in a continued response to COVID-19 (aka the Coronavirus) Quebec Premier François Legault ordered all shopping malls, hair salons, sit-down restaurants and spas closed until May 1st and extended school closings to that date as well. He also announced that police would now be enforcing a ban on groups of more than two people either gathered outside or indoors (where not everyone lives in the residence).

Yesterday there were 219 cases, today there are 628. While the new number is a little less than triple the previous one, it is also the first time the government is including presumed cases along with confirmed ones.

This jump was also anticipated, given the time it takes for the virus to show up. It’s still too early to tell how well the social distancing measures, which began here when Legault ordered all bars and gyms closed last Sunday, are working.

With the larger number, though, Legault ordered all in-person businesses not deemed essential to close by midnight tonight until April 13th. Or, as the Premier put it: “Quebec will be on hold for three weeks.”

What Is Considered Essential

Quebec just released the list of what is considered essential (post updated from a previous version without the list). You can read the complete list, currently in French only, on quebec.ca

In addition to healthcare (including veterinary), government (including garbage collection, postal service and snow removal) and infrastructure services and some construction services, the following can remain open:

  • Grocery stores and other food businesses
  • Pharmacies
  • Depanneurs
  • Big box stores in commercial centres with separate entrances offering hardware, grocery or pharmacy products
  • Agricultural product stores
  • SAQ and SQDC
  • Funeral homes, crematoriums and cemetaries
  • Takeout and delivery restaurants
  • Hotels
  • Cleaners and laundromats
  • Medical and orthopedic supply businesses
  • Pet food and supply businesses
  • Movers
  • Workplace security equipment businesses
  • Telecommunications (equipment and service)
  • Cable
  • Local and national media (not just indie media like us that already work remotely)
  • Newspaper printing presses
  • Banking (at the bank and support centres)
  • Payroll services
  • Accounting services
  • Financial market services
  • Electricians, plumbers and similar services supporting emergency services
  • Construction equipment rental
  • Building maintenance and related services (alarms, ventilation, etc.)
  • Public transit
  • Taxis and adaptive transport
  • Ports and aeroports
  • Vehicle repair and service stations
  • Package delivery
  • Businesses in the supply chain of essential businesses

We will update you on any changes as this promises to be a developing story for weeks to come.

We are in the midst of a global pandemic and Quebec has declared a state of emergency. Schools are closed and Premier Legeault just announced that bars, libraries, theatres and other public spaces will be as well. CLSCs and hospitals are turning people away, and the immune-compromised are being advised to stay home to avoid the Corona Virus.

During these trying times of toilet paper hoarding, quarantines, and hand sanitizer shortages, common sense and decency are the keys to getting through this epidemic in one piece. I am here to offer you some.

This article will give you a crash course on what to do and not do during the COVID-19 outbreak.

The Virus Itself

There is an excellent video out there by Dr. Peter Lin, a family physician in Toronto. He talks in depth about the virus, but I’m going to give you the basics.

The Corona virus is a virus that started in animals and got transmitted to humans via a live animal being sold at a fish market in Wuhan, China. The virus itself is a family of viruses that latches on to your lungs and can cause everything from the common cold, to SARS or MERS.

The symptoms of the virus start off as those of the common cold i.e. runny nose, sore throat, cough, and fever, and diarrhea. As it gets worse, people get short of breath, have difficulty taking in fluids, and their kidneys shut down.

Because the virus is new, there’s currently no way to treat the virus directly, so doctors are just quarantining people and addressing their symptoms. The people most at risk of catching it and dying are those with compromised immune systems; that means the elderly, babies, and people with chronic illnesses i.e. diabetes.

So How Can You Fight the Virus?

Wash your damn hands, and wash them often for at least twenty seconds. If you’re on the move, use hand sanitizer – a real one, not these all-natural snake oil versions so many idiots are promoting or posting recipes for online.

You should also avoid touching your face, as the virus spreads that way. Sadly, the surgical masks most people are wearing aren’t really helpful at preventing the virus because they’re not air tight.

That said, they are useful because they keep us from touching our faces and in cases where you’re coughing or sneezing, the masks keep whatever virus you have from spreading. No mask to cough or sneeze into? Use the crook of your elbow or a tissue.

If You Are Coughing or Sneezing, Wear a Mask

Do NOT get defensive or angry if you’re coughing or sneezing up a storm and someone offers you hand sanitizer or a clean mask. Remember that the flu kills thousands of people every year, and an epidemic is not the time to be a dick about this.

Whether it’s a common cold, allergies, or the flu causing your cough or congestion, don’t be a dick, wear a mask in closed spaces like elevators, metro cars, buses, and waiting rooms. If you refuse, do not be surprised, defensive, or angry if you are asked to leave.

This is a time when human contact should be avoided. I know in Quebec we love to do the two-cheek kiss thing, but that very well might be part of what got us in trouble to begin with.

Want to greet someone? Here are some alternatives from pop culture and around the world that do not involve touching one another:

  • In the Philippines and Mexico, they will put their left hand over their heart and bow to one another
  • The Vulcan “Live long and Prosper” hand gesture
  • A friendly wave
  • In Japan and China, bowing is common
  • Curtsy
  • Smile at the person
  • Touch elbows like Gene Wilder and Madeleine Kahn in Young Frankenstein

STAY HOME

If you can afford to stay home, stay home. The virus is spreading in crowds, which is why the NHL and NBA have put their seasons on hold and concerts are being cancelled left and right.

Experts are recommending people avoid public transport, going to work etc. You may feel silly sitting in your apartment for two weeks, but self-isolation may very well save us all.

For those of you with day jobs, work from home if you can. Remember that your employer can and should face serious legal consequences if they try and penalize you for taking necessary precautions, even if that means not coming in to work.

In 2020 it is utterly absurd that with today’s technology employers are still insisting so much of the workforce do their jobs on site. The only thing that should matter to your employer is that the work gets done and sent to them, not where it’s done from.

Do not hoard toilet paper and other necessities. Unless you have severe gastro-intestinal symptoms, you’re just a jerk if you bought every last roll of it from your local store.

If you did stockpile toilet paper and are having regrets, share some with your more vulnerable neighbors i.e the elderly, disabled. You don’t have to put it in their hands. Leave a pack on their doorstep when they’re home with a friendly note and ring the doorbell. I’m sure they’ll appreciate it.

If you were travelling recently, especially if your trip was to the US, you need to self-isolate immediately. The US has declared a state of emergency and your immune system was likely compromised by the travel itself.

If you have ANY symptoms or questions about COVD-19, call this number: 1 877 644-4545. The Info Sante number – 811 – has been having technical issues lately that caused waits of up to three hours this week so the government set up an alternate line. Call them if you need to.

Don’t Be Racist

Last but not least, DO NOT use the virus as an excuse to be racist to Asian people. The virus may have originated in China, but it has now spread worldwide.

In spite of this, people of Asian descent, be they Chinese, Vietnamese, Filipino, Korean or Japanese are seeing an uptick in business boycotts and racist attacks. As a Filipino Canadian, I cannot help but shake my head at the stupidity of it all.

Here’s a wakeup call: Asians have been in Canada since before Confederation. Those railroads that allowed John A. MacDonald to unite Canada from sea to shining sea were built largely by early Chinese immigrants.

Whether it’s the descendants of those who built the railroads, those interned in camps during the Second World War, Filipinos who built communities in Montreal and Toronto, and refugees from the Vietnam War, Asian Canadians are part of what makes this country strong. In spite of this, there’s been vandalism in Chinatown.

Though Italy is on lockdown because of the virus, I haven’t seen any attacks on Italian Canadians in the news and the reason seems pretty obvious. Italians look Caucasian, Asians do not.

That said, don’t be racist, and call out anyone you see being racist towards Asian Canadians. Same goes for anyone picking on Iranian Canadians because the virus has spread in Iran.

The Corona virus is in Canada and things are crazy right now. Let’s keep a cool head and do what it takes to get through this in one piece.

December 12th, 2019 was a sad day for visible minorities in Quebec. The Quebec Court of Appeal denied the application to suspend certain sections of the Laicity Act aka Bill 21 until the Superior Court decides on their constitutionality.

A lot of eyes were on the Quebec Court of Appeal in anticipation of this ruling. Some in favor of Bill 21 even tried to undermine the court by questioning the impartiality of the chief justice, Nicole Duval Hesler. Among them were historian and Dawson College professor Frédéric Bastien, who publicly argued ten days before the ruling that Hesler could not be impartial because she has spoken in favor of multiculturalism and religious accommodation.

While most people would consider Hesler an enlightened judge, her critics cried bias, going insofar to file a complaint against her with the Canadian Judicial Council, the body responsible for ensuring the quality of judicial services in Canada.

The authors of the law knew that Bill 21 could not withstand a legal challenge by an objective court. It’s why they wrote the Notwithstanding Clause into the law, and why in anticipation of the Court of Appeal’s decision, they attempted to undermine its chief justice.

Turns out the bigots were wasting their time questioning Hesler’s impartiality, for while Hesler voted to grant the appeal, she was overruled by her fellow judges. In the 2-1 decision, the court decided that the Notwithstanding Clause written into the law made suspension of articles within it impossible until the Superior Court gave their own ruling on its constitutionality.

Now let’s talk about the Court of Appeal decision.

The ruling was the outcome of an appeal of a Superior Court decision rendered on July 18, 2019. The plaintiff in this case is Ichak Nourel Hak, a student scheduled to complete her Bachelor of Education this winter. She hoped to teach high school French in Quebec, but the passing of Bill 21 last June made that impossible.

The law bans many public service employees – including teachers – from wearing religious symbols while working. Hak wears a hijab, and the law as it stands only allows existing employees who wear such symbols to keep their jobs.

New hires and people seeking a promotion would have to remove the signs of their faith in order to work. As it stands, and in spite of the teacher shortage in Quebec, many people have found their job offers rescinded or their applications denied since the enactment of Bill 21.

Hak and three other groups, among them the English Montreal School Board and the Canadian Council of Muslims, are all working to challenge the law in court, but until those challenges are heard and decided, the law remains in effect.

Hak went to the Superior Court seeking an injunction to suspend articles 6 and 8 of the Laicity law until the constitutional challenges were decided.

Article 6 prohibits certain public employees from wearing religious symbols. It also defines religious symbols as all objects, especially clothing, symbols, jewelry, accessories and headgear worn with religious conviction or belief, as well as anything that could be considered religious clothing. Article 8 requires that members or employees of public institutions carry out their duties with their faces uncovered, and that anyone wishing to receive government services must uncover their faces in order to receive them – a clear reference to the Niqab worn by some Muslim women. Though the Laicity Law is supposed to apply to everyone equally, experts agree its effects will be felt mostly by Muslim women in Quebec.

The Superior Court refused to suspend these parts of the law because of the Notwithstanding Clause written into it. The Quebec Court of Appeal maintained that decision.

So what is the Notwithstanding Clause and why can it affect a provincial court decision?

All laws in Canada, be they provincial or federal, are subject to the Constitution, which takes precedence over all other laws. Included in the Constitution is the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Laws that violate the Constitution can be challenged in court, and in the case of a successful challenge, struck down. In order to avoid such challenges, governments can use the Notwithstanding Clause.

The Notwithstanding Clause is section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It is written into our constitution to allow governments, provincial and federal, to enact laws that violate sections seven to fifteen of the Canadian Charter – sections referring to equality, freedom from discrimination, and the rights of the accused in criminal cases – provided they indicate within the law that it applies notwithstanding the Charter.

The Clause is not, however, the great block to legal challenges Premier François Legault makes it out to be, as it’s only valid for five years. At the end of the five year period, the National Assembly can let it expire thus opening it to new legal challenges, or they can renew it by another act of parliament.

The five-year limit allows for governments to change and in cases where a law has been struck down by the courts, it can buy governments time to keep the law in effect while they rewrite the law so that it conforms to the Charter.

Any legal challenges to the Laicity law will either have to wait for the five years to expire, or find ways around the Notwithstanding Clause to successfully challenge the law. Current challenges include, but are not limited to:

  • That the law violates section 28 of the Canadian Charter guaranteeing equal treatment before the law of males and females given that the law disproportionally affects women. In the past, section 28 has only been used to interpret laws, not challenge them.
  • That the law criminalizes the wearing of religious symbols in certain professions and therefore is unconstitutional on jurisdictional grounds as it was enacted by a provincial government when only the Federal government can enact criminal legislation
  • The law is too vague

The Court of Appeal was not there to render a decision on the Laicity law’s merits. It was there to decide whether or not the law allowed them to suspend certain parts of the law until its merits are decided by another court.

The Court of Appeal recognized that the Laicity Law causes harm to the people it affects, especially women. It recognized that the grounds for the legal challenges – set to be heard by the Superior Court in October 2020 – have merit. It refused to suspend the law until those challenges are heard and decided, stating that the use of the Notwithstanding Clause tied their hands at this stage.

Until the actual challenges to the Laicity law are heard and decided, do not lose hope. Be an open and vocal critic of François Legault and his government and step between those using the law as an excuse to harass and assault innocent people.

Support movements like “Non à la Loi 21” and wear one of their buttons with pride. Show solidarity with Quebec’s religious minorities and laugh openly and loudly at people who defend the law as anything but the legalized bigotry it is.

The fight is not over until we say it is. So keep fighting.

Featured Image of the Quebec Court of Appeals building in Montreal by Jeangagnon via WikiMedia Commons

On October 30th, 2019 the Quebec government under François Legault and the CAQ announced that they would be making an addition to the requirements for people seeking to immigrate to Quebec. It’s a test of allegedly ‘democratic values and Quebec values’. The announcement resulted in praise by some, harsh criticism by others.

It should be said right off the bat that this article is not going to discuss how blatantly xenophobic this announcement is. It is not going to address the fact that, like Bill 21, this values test is clearly pandering to the most disgustingly xenophobic racist people in Quebec and that the path the government has taken may unfortunately culminate in a slew of hate crimes in Legault’s name. My colleague, Jason C. McLean did an excellent job of addressing this last week.

This article is going to look at the practical aspects of such a test and what impact it would really have on would-be immigrants to Quebec.

For those unfamiliar with the immigration process, federal and provincial governments have concurring jurisdiction on issues of immigration. However it must be noted that while Quebec can choose its immigrants through Quebec Selection Certificate (CSQ) program, it is Ottawa that ultimately gets the final say as to who gets to live in Canada permanently as permanent residents and eventually citizens.

The Quebec government announced that all adult immigration applicants and their adult family members will be required to take the test and get at least 75% to pass. If they fail, they will have an opportunity to take the test a second and third time. Minors and people with a medical condition preventing them from obtaining a selection certificate would be exempt.

The same day, the Quebec government released a series of sample questions that might appear on the test. The questions include those about the equal rights of men and women, LGBTQI rights, and regarding Quebec’s controversial religious symbols ban. If the samples are any indication, it is highly possible that some Canadian Conservative and People’s Party voters would not themselves pass it.

In order to fully grasp the actual impact this test would have, I reached out to the people with the Non à La Loi 21 group, who have been leading the fight against the religious symbols ban François Legault forced through the National Assembly last March. As they have been actively fighting prejudice in Quebec, I asked if they had any thoughts on this test. They put me in touch with Me William Korbatly, a lawyer operating out of Ville Saint Laurent.

He says that the Quebec government is within its rights to impose any condition in order to get a CSQ. Korbatly feels that such a test would be easier to pass than the mandatory French test required in order to get a CSQ, and would therefore not have a significant impact on the immigration process.

He points out that the test is useless because many people would have no problem giving the correct answers on the test even if they themselves don’t believe in what they’re answering. Once applicants have their CSQ or permanent residency, the government won’t be able to hurt them even if they openly declare their disagreement with so-called “Quebec values”.

“The problem lies not in the technicality but rather in its raison d’etre. We all know the hardline nationalist identity political agenda that the CAQ is pursuing. This test is merely another publicity populist coup to show to their audience that they stand up for their values and the ‘valeurs québécoises’.”

Me Korbatly feels that this values test is just another distraction from what is really going on in Quebec and the failures of our current government.

“Presenting the ‘laicité’ as defined by the CAQ and which was passed and integrated within the Quebec Charter of Rights by a closure motion, as a Quebec value is dishonest and doesn’t represent the real open and tolerant nature of Quebec and Quebeckers. What the CAQ is doing since the passing of Bill 21, is hijacking the opinions of all Quebecers and reducing them to their populist identity agenda and wedge politics so they can hide their failures in the execution of most of their promises such as the deal with specialist physicians, Hydro Quebec, the maternelle 4 ans, the maisons pour les ainés, and the list is long.”

Given that the test will be ultimately meaningless, here’s hoping new arrivals to Quebec say what is needed to pass so they can come here. After all, diversity is strength, and the more diverse Quebec is, the more our leaders will have to abandon their hate.

Featured image by abdallahh via Flickr Creative Commons