Large crowd marches in Montreal to protest against Quebec's vaccination passport

A large group of people gathered in downtown Montreal on Saturday to protest against Quebec's vaccination passport, just a few weeks before the system is expected to be in place.

Passports will be implemented across the province as of Sept. 1

A large crowd of demonstrators gathered in downtown Montreal to protest the implementation of a vaccination passport set to be in place across Quebec on Sept. 1. (Xavier Savard-Fournier/Radio-Canada)

A large group of people gathered in downtown Montreal on Saturday to protest against Quebec's vaccination passport, just a few weeks before the system is expected to be in place.

The crowd, which stretched at least four to five blocks on René-Lévesque Boulevard West, began marching toward  Place des Festivals at 2 p.m. ET, with people chanting "No to vaccine passports," in French.

Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé confirmed earlier this week that a vaccination passport system will be implemented as of Sept. 1 in an effort to combat a growing COVID-19 caseload and what he described as an "inevitable" fourth wave.

Details about the vaccination passport are still being worked out, but it is expected to only allow those who are fully vaccinated access to festivals, bars, restaurants and physical training facilities.

Limits on other venues and activities will be contingent on further spread of the delta variant, which is gaining a foothold in the province, Dubé said.

People chanted 'No to vaccine passports,' in French during a large gathering on Saturday in downtown Montreal. (Xavier Savard-Fournier/Radio-Canada)

According to the Facebook page of Québec Debout, the online group behind Saturday's protest whose name means "Quebec Stand Up," the vaccination passport system is "an unprecedented prejudice for the population that is strongly discriminatory."

CBC News approached several protesters on Saturday, most of whom declined to be interviewed. Those who were willing to speak were shouted down by the crowd and decided not to.

Montreal police are on scene and are monitoring the situation closely, according to a spokesperson for the Service de Police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM). The protest is scheduled to end at 6 p.m. ET.

More than 10,000 people have indicated online they would participate in the protest. Police wouldn't say how many people were at the protest.

Critics call for public debate, but Legault opposed

Civil liberties groups have raised concerns about data security, and opposition parties have called for a public debate regarding the rollout of vaccination passports. 

Quebec Premier François Legault, however, is refusing to hold a debate in the legislature on vaccine passports partly because he said he fears Quebecers would be exposed to conspiracy theories. 

More than a hundred people protested Thursday in front of La Cage, a sports bar and restaurant in Quebec City — the first business to test the vaccination passport system as part of the province's pilot project.

"People are allowed to express their concerns and to protest," said Marjorie Larouche, a spokesperson from Quebec's Health Department, adding that the protests are troubling to see.

Dubé said on Friday more people have signed up to get their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine since Legault announced plans for a vaccination passport last week.

Dubé said in a tweet that a steadily increasing number of people got their first doses for a total of 26,000 between Tuesday and Thursday. 

As of Friday, the vast majority of new infections in Canadians have been among the unvaccinated, even though they make up an increasingly smaller segment of the population. Of the 11 COVID-19 patients that were in intensive care in Montreal and Laval as of Friday, none were fully vaccinated

Mutation of virus a key concern, virologist says

Benoit Barbeau, a virologist in the department of biological sciences at the Université du Québec à Montréal, said getting the maximum number of people vaccinated is the only way to stop the spread and mutation of the virus. 

"It's obvious that you need to have this vaccine coverage so that at least, first of all, the goal will be to minimize the impact on the health of individuals who are infected, especially the older people... but also to minimize or to reduce the likelihood of transmission," he said. 

Barbeau said one of his biggest fears is that the virus will evolve and mutate within the unvaccinated population and reach a point where even those who are vaccinated could be affected by new and more highly transmissible variants. 

"The more it's transmitted, the more it infects people, the more it changes," he said. "That's the way it mutates."

Dr. Donald Vinh says reaching 85 per cent of fully vaccinated eligible Quebecers is critical to prevent further spread of the delta variant in upcoming weeks. (Submitted by Sandra Sciangula)

Dr Donald Vinh, an infectious diseases expert at the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre, said incentivizing people to get the jab is one way to reach maximal vaccine coverage. 

"The vaccine passport helps to achieve a much higher level of vaccination in the city and in the province," he said. "And what that does in turn is that it protects the people and then that allows a return to more normalcy while preserving our health-care system's capacity." 

Vihn said it's both doable and necessary for Quebec to have 85 per cent of its eligible population fully vaccinated in order to prevent further spread of the delta variant in upcoming weeks.

According to the Friday's update from the Quebec government, 85 per cent of the province's eligible population has received a first dose of vaccine — slightly higher than the Canada-wide average of 82 per cent of eligible people vaccinated — and 73 per cent have received both.

With files from Sarah Leavitt and The Canadian Press