Demonstrators march in Montreal to protest against public health restrictions

Protesters, most not wearing masks, gathered in Montreal on Saturday to demonstrate against Quebec’s public health restrictions such as the curfew.

They were calling for a return to normal life, with the economy fully open and people allowed to gather as they once did without fear of police knocking on their door.

A large group marched a loop around Maisonneuve Park and the Botanical Garden, following Sherbrooke and Viau streets to Rosemont and Pie-IX boulevards. 

“We can no longer take freedom for granted in this country,” said Maxime Bernier, a former member of Parliament who joined in the protest. He is calling for an end to the curfew and lockdown measures. 

The protest in Montreal forced public health officials to reschedule vaccine appointments at the Olympic Stadium, and in some cases, transfer them to other clinics. 

“It is extremely unfortunate,” Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé wrote on Twitter Friday. “We respect the right to demonstrate, but vaccinating is the priority.”

Opposed to proposed ‘immunity passports’ 

At the event, there were those against vaccinations and others who were in favour, explained Samuel Grenier, one of the protest’s organizers with the group Québec debout (Quebec stands up).

Collectively, he said, demonstrators are opposed to the idea of “immunity passports,” which would allow people to prove they’ve been vaccinated to make it simpler to access services or travel.

Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu says her government embraces the concept of “vaccine passports” as a way to help vaccinated Canadians travel internationally.

Some protesters were pushing back against the idea of an ‘immunity passports.’ (Rose St-Pierre/Radio-Canada)

At the provincial level, the province has said it wants to provide Quebecers with a digital proof of vaccination, though the context in which it could be used remains unclear.

Grenier said protesters are also against the measures that have kept families and friends apart for so long. He said he can’t wait to see the government’s plan to return to normal life.

On Québec debout’s Facebook page, the group is posting photos of people gathering without masks, ignoring physical distancing. In videos, people are speaking to each other and the camera while standing shoulder-to-shoulder without face coverings.

Despite the large number of demonstrators, the vast majority of Quebecers are completely in favour of public health measures, according to Corinne Gendron, a professor in the department of strategy, social and environmental responsibility at Université du Québec à Montréal. 

“It is not that they like to be confined, but that they believe in the effectiveness and the necessity of these measures,” she said.

On Twitter, Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante said she finds the protests worrying. She said she is not questioning the right to protests, but enacting strict public health measures is the best way to return to normality. These measures “must be respected,” she said, to help ensure “a dynamic and more normal summer.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a similar comment on Friday, saying large protests  increase the risk of “spreading further cases of COVID-19, and extending the time in which we will have to be faced with restrictions and public health measures.”

COVID-19 continues to spread

The protest comes as Quebec is reporting 1,101 new COVID-19 cases and seven deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus.

Health authorities say the number of patients in hospital dropped by 14 to 578, with 159 people in intensive care, a drop of five.

However, hospitals in the Outaouais region seeing a surge in emergency room patients. This week, the health authority reported that the hospitals in Maniwaki, Gatineau and Hull were well over capacity.

They say it’s in part due to COVID-19 cases and patients with other health needs. There’s also been an influx of patients experiencing symptoms from a COVID-19 vaccine, but none that required hospitalization.

Officials are reminding people those reactions are expected and normal.

Quebec has now reported 350,874 infections and 10,933 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. The province has 9,579 active cases.

The province administered 62,406 doses of COVID-19 vaccine on Friday, ensuring that more than 36 per cent of the population have now received a first dose.

All adults in the province are expected to be able to book an appointment by mid-May.