As protests begin, Quebec City mayor urges visitors to attend Winter Carnival

Quebec City Mayor Bruno Marchand is reassuring residents and visitors to the annual Carnaval de Québec that the city will be safe during weekend protests calling for an end to COVID-19 restrictions.

Mayor, premier say they will accept protest against COVID-19 measures but not blocking of streets

Quebec City police allowed some large trucks to park along René-Lévesque Boulevard, but every other motorist was ordered to keep moving on past the grounds of the National Assembly. (Louis Gagne/Radio-Canada)

Quebec City Mayor Bruno Marchand is reassuring residents and visitors to the annual Carnaval de Québec that the city will be safe during weekend protests calling for an end to COVID-19 restrictions.

"It will be secure to be in Quebec City this weekend. It will be a very nice weekend to be here," Marchand said. He said so far protesters have been "totally respectful." 

The first demonstrators, travelling mostly in smaller vehicles but with some in large trucks, arrived Thursday night in the area around the National Assembly.

In a Facebook video posted Friday, two organizers, Kevin Grenier and Bernard Gauthier, called for people to gather in front of the assembly at 5 p.m., just as the city's winter festival got underway in the same area.

While Grenier said the atmosphere would be "friendly" and "a party" during the carnival, he said protesters will "use another tone" if Premier François Legault does not heed their demands. 

In a Tweet Friday afternoon, Quebec City police (SPVQ) reminded citizens that nobody is allowed to camp or take shelter — including staying in campers or trailers — near the National Assembly or other public places.

WATCH | Police direct traffic as protesters gather in front of National Assembly: 

Protesters gather in Quebec City in front of National Assembly

2 years ago
Duration 1:01
Quebec City police allowed some large trucks to park along René-Lévesque Boulevard, but every other motorist was ordered to keep moving on by the National Assembly.

The largest protest is expected Saturday, with more groups arriving from other parts of the province, including a convoy from the Beauce region.

Marchand says everyone has a right to demonstrate but asked protesters to remain civil.

"It's only the beginning, but I think most of them understand that if you have a cause and you want that cause to be understood, you need to be respectful," he said. 

"Is honking for hours respectful? The answer is no. Is it tolerable? The answer is no. There are regulations against this. The police will be able to apply them." 

Protesters gathered at the corner of Honoré-Mercier Avenue and René-Lévesque Boulevard near the National Assembly Friday evening. ( Louis Gagne/Radio-Canada)

'Lots of tow trucks' ready, says Legault 

Quebec City police said they had given out 14 tickets by the end of Thursday night, for violations of municipal regulations or road safety laws. An additional 40 tickets, most of them for road safety violations, were handed out during protests Friday evening.

Police allowed trucks to park in one lane along René-Lévesque Boulevard but made the bulk of vehicles circulate, rather than allowing them to block traffic. 

Marchand said this was to allow protesters to express themselves while still maintaining order. 

"It's a compromise. We left them space because [the trucks] are a symbol that's important to them," he said. 

Some streets are also closed to vehicle traffic because of the carnival. Honoré-Mercier Avenue is for pedestrians only, between Grande Allée and René-Lévesque boulevards, as is Grande Allée between de Claire-Fontaine Street and Honoré-Mercier Boulevard. 

WATCH | Legault and Marchand weigh in on protests planned for start of winter carnival: 

People have a right to protest and to attend winter carnival, says Mayor

2 years ago
Duration 0:55
Premier François Legault and Quebec City Mayor Bruno Marchand want Carnaval de Québec to go ahead as planned in Quebec City despite the festival coinciding with demonstrators protesting against pandemic public-health measures.

"We won't tolerate in any way trucks impeding citizens from circulating," Legault said Friday in Montreal, while making an announcement about the aviation industry. 

Nor, he said, would authorities put up with protesters harassing the public in malls or restaurants, as was the case in Ottawa. 

So far, he said, that hasn't been happening.

"I want to make sure it stays this way," Legault said. 

Marchand praised the work of Quebec City police, but hesitated to draw comparisons with Ottawa, where many residents have criticized police for not doing enough to intervene. 

Human rights defenders have also denounced a double-standard in how police have handled the Ottawa protests.

"It's easy to look at it from a distance, but the conditions are different, and we are going through this afterwards," Marchand said.

Some protesters told Radio-Canada they intend to stay "as long as it takes" for the government to drop COVID-19 restrictions, including vaccine passports and mask requirements.

Marchand said there was nothing to prevent protesters from showing up many days in a row to protest. He said Quebec City police have plans in place to prevent the prolonged blockades.

Protest and carnival can co-exist, says organizer

The general director of the Quebec Winter Carnival, Mélanie Raymond, believes the protest and the carnival can coexist.

Carnival sites are fenced off, as in other years. As well, visitors aged 13 and up will have to present vaccine passports to enter and must wear a mask if they want to visit the ice palace where Bonhomme, the carnival's mascot, resides. 

Still, Raymond and many merchants, restaurant owners and hotel operators in Old Quebec City, are concerned about lower turnout this weekend. 

A protester waves a flag on Honoré-Mercier Boulevard in front of Bonhomme's ice palace, one of the sites for the Carnaval de Québec. Protests against COVID-19 measures are taking place throughout the weekend, coinciding with the start of the winter carnival. (CBC/Justin Hayward)

"It's true this is worrying us. However, we are lucky to be operating over the next 10 days, until Feb.13. We're in the downtown but also in other parts of the city," said Raymond. 

"We were fully booked," Marcel Veilleux, the owner of the pub D'Orsay, told Radio-Canada Thursday. "Since yesterday, we've had about 20 to 40 per cent of reservations cancel — particularly people from outside the city who were worried."

Veilleux is not alone. According to the business development group representing merchants in Old Quebec, half of its members have seen between 10 and 40 per cent of their bookings cancelled.

Donna Willett, who owns the Auberge J.A. Moisan in the Saint-Jean Baptiste neighbourhood, just outside Old Quebec City, says she's had guests from the United States, Montreal and the Maritimes all cancel their reservations because they were worried the Quebec City protests could end up like those in Ottawa. 

Willett said she initially understood the frustration of some truck drivers that they were required to be vaccinated while many government employees, such as Quebec liquor and cannabis store employees, were not.

However, she said, the "havoc" in Ottawa has hurt small businesses that were already suffering from the pandemic.

"I just don't think we needed this right now. There's another solution. There's another way to go about this. And I think the sympathy that they've had going into this, they've lost a lot of it, from their actions in Ottawa." 

The city's mayor says it's a tough blow for industries that were counting on the revenue from the carnival period. 

"To see cancellations, that breaks my heart," said Marchand. "We have to be able to encourage our businesses ... and show people the city is safe."

With files from Radio-Canada, Sarah Leavitt, Justin Hayward