Quebec court upholds province’s COVID-19 curfew after Charter challenge

Quebec court upholds province's COVID-19 curfew after Charter challenge

A provincial court justice of the peace has upheld the Quebec government’s imposition of curfews during the COVID-19 pandemic, finding several people guilty of breaking the health order during a protest.

Marie-France Beaulieu of the Quebec court ruled Tuesday that the curfew — which forced Quebecers to stay indoors from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. — infringed Charter-protected rights like freedom of expression and lawful assembly, but she said those violations were reasonable and justified given the public health context.

“The pandemic and the rapid increase in (COVID-19) cases constitute exceptional circumstances raising public health issues, this situation forced the government to adopt measures to reduce the risks of spread in order to protect the life and health of the population,” Beaulieu wrote in a 65-page ruling.

“In other words, as no one could predict with certainty what the long-term impacts of the upheavals caused by COVID-19 would be, it was necessary to take appropriate means, including the use of a curfew.”

Stéphanie Pépin, who along with seven others broke the curfew by holding a demonstration after 8 p.m. in January 2021, had raised a Charter challenge against the health order.

She and others demonstrated against the rules in Amos, Que., about 485 kilometres northwest of Montreal, in the Abitibi-TĂ©miscamingue region. Her challenge was assisted by the Calgary-based Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms.

Lawyer Olivier SĂ©guin, who represented PĂ©pin, said the ruling will be appealed. In a statement, he argued it was evident that authorities had “no constitutional basis on which to act.”

With this week’s decision, the eight defendants were ordered to pay a $1,000 fine within six months.

Premier François Legault’s Coalition Avenir QuĂ©bec government twice used nightly curfews during the pandemic. The first lasted nearly five months, starting on Jan. 9, 2021, until May 28, 2021. He imposed a second COVID-19 curfew on New Year’s Eve 2021 until Jan. 17, 2022. Breaking the curfew carried fines of between $1,000 and $6,000.

Quebec was the only province to prohibit its citizens from leaving their homes at night during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Charter case heard testimony from senior Quebec public health officials at the time, including former public health director Dr. Horacio Arruda, and Dr. Richard Massé, another public health official.

In her ruling, Beaulieu said the global pandemic was an “exceptional context.” The government, she said, “had to plan and provide a reasonable framework for social activities and interactions, hence the adoption of specific measures.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 2, 2024.

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