Demonstrators, many maskless, march in Montreal against public health restrictions
Protest forces officials to reschedule vaccine appointments at Olympic Stadium
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 to issue fines for illegal gatherings.
A large group marched a loop around Maisonneuve Park and the Botanical Garden, following Sherbrooke and Viau streets to Rosemont Boulevard and Bourbonnière Avenue.
Halfway through, the parade was estimated to have spanned nearly two kilometres.
"We can no longer take freedom for granted in this country," said Maxime Bernier, leader of the federal People's Party of Canada who joined in the protest. He is calling for an end to the curfew and lockdown measures.
"People here are ready. They're responsible. They want their freedom back."
Montreal police said the protest was peaceful overall, though a small group of masked demonstrators threw smoke bombs and firecrackers at officers. One officer was injured.
Police made four arrests at Saturday's demonstration, and handed out 28 tickets for public-health violations.
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The protest forced public health officials to reschedule vaccine appointments at 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."
Opposition to proposed 'immunity passports'
Samuel Grenier, one of the protest's organizers with the group Québec debout (Quebec stands up), said there were those at the event who are against vaccinations as well as those in favour of them.
Collectively, he said, demonstrators are opposed to the idea of "immunity passports," which would allow people to show they've been vaccinated to make it simpler to access services or travel.
Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu said the government embraces the concept of "vaccine passports" as a way to help vaccinated Canadians travel internationally.
At the provincial level, the province has said it wants to provide Quebecers with a digital proof of vaccination, although the context in which it could be used remains unclear.
WATCH | Massive demonstration draws people of all ages to Montreal:
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 posted photos of people gathering without masks and ignoring physical distancing. In videos, people are speaking to each other and the camera while standing shoulder-to-shoulder without face coverings.
"I'm in travel. I sell upscale travel," Antonella Cicero, who was marching on Saturday, told CBC News. "I'm self employed, it's a whole year that I'm shut down."
Others, like Laurence Laliberté, were protesting against the curfew.
"Why do we need to go home at eight? Like, COVID doesn't stop existing after 8 o'clock," she said.
The Quebec government enacted a curfew in an effort to deter people from gathering at others' homes amid concerns that indoor get-togethers are a significant source of transmission.
Measures 'must be respected,' mayor says
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 found 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."
Even with the province's vaccination campaign picking up steam, experts say Quebecers still have to hunker down and keep following the rules.
"We've got to still look after each other," said Dr. Matthew Oughton, an infectious diseases specialist at Montreal's Jewish General Hospital.
"To me, the best way to get rid of these restrictions is to beat this disease. Not just say, 'OK, time to stop these restrictions' because if we do that, we are just setting ourselves up for worse and worse problems"
COVID-19 continues to spread
The protest came as Quebec reported 1,101 new COVID-19 cases and seven related deaths on Saturday.
Health authorities say the number of patients in hospital dropped by 14 to 578, with 159 people in intensive care, a drop of five. The province has 9,579 active cases. Quebec has reported 10,933 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic.
The province administered 62,406 doses of COVID-19 vaccine on Friday; more than 36 per cent of the population has received at least a first dose.
All adults in the province are expected to be able to book an appointment by mid-May.
With files from Radio-Canada, Valeria Cori-Manocchio and The Canadian Press