As It Happens

Montreal health reporter 'surprised' premier criticized his COVID-19 reporting

A Montreal health reporter is standing by his journalism after Quebec's premier singled him out for stirring up fear over COVID-19.

'I guess my coverage touched a raw nerve,' says Aaron Derfel of the Montreal Gazette

Quebec Premier François Legault responds to reporters during a news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)


A Montreal health reporter is standing by his journalism after Quebec's premier singled him out for stirring up fear over COVID-19.

"As a journalist, you know, my overriding concern has been what's happening," Aaron Derfel, who covers health care for the Montreal Gazette, told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"I've been doing what I've always been doing, and I guess my coverage touched a raw nerve."

Premier François Legault was asked Tuesday during his daily COVID-19 press briefing about a poll that suggests anglophones in Quebec are more concerned about contracting the coronavirus disease than francophones.

"It's a question of information," the premier replied. "I'm trying to do my best in French and in English, so I don't see why the result is not the same for francophones and anglophones. I guess maybe the Gazette has a certain responsibility."

He then went on to single out Derfel specifically, saying, "Sometimes I really disagree with him."

'This is not a language issue'

"I was quite surprised. It was embarrassing," Derfel said. "In the context of a live news conference that I was watching, I didn't expect that at all."

Legault's spokesperson declined to provide comment to As It Happens before deadline, saying any questions for the premier could be asked at his Friday press briefing. 

An online poll conducted by Leger last week found that 68 per cent of anglophones are personally afraid of contracting the virus compared to 47 per cent of francophones and 71 per cent of allophones, people whose mother tongue is neither English nor French.

What's more, 91 per cent of francophone respondents said they were satisfied with the provincial government's response versus 74 per cent for both anglophones and allophones.

The survey was conducted from May 1 to 6 on 1,638 randomly recruited adult Quebecers. Of those, 694 were English speakers. 

It was commissioned by the Quebec Community Groups Network, an umbrella organization representing English-language community groups across the province, and the Montreal-based Association for Canadian Studies (ACS).

Aaron Derfel reports on health care for the Montreal Gazette. (Submitted by Aaron Derfel)

Derfel doesn't think the divide has anything to do with language, though he says it's possible more English speakers have been directly impacted by the disease. 

"This is not a language issue. It has nothing to do with that. It's a public health issue of paramount importance," he said.

"People are dying in Montreal and we have thousands of people sick with COVID-19. Our hospitals are overwhelmed. Our long-term care centres are also overwhelmed. So I just can't understand that comment came out of left field and I would hope that we can move past it."

He also defended the work of his francophone colleagues.

"I think that the francophone news media has been quite critical of the government's response to the pandemic," he said. 

That's been especially true since Derfel helped break the story of alleged neglect at a long-term care home CHSLD Résidence Herron in Dorval. The private care home is now under government trusteeship after dozens of people there died from COVID-19. 

"Prior to that story, there was this feeling of solidarity and the premier was justifiably praised for his approach," Derfel said. "But then after that story, lots of journalists start to ask questions about the government's response."

Quebec had 40,724 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Thursday, according to data tracked by CBC News, and 3,351 people have died.

The worst hit areas in the province are long-term care centres and various clusters in and around Montreal. 

That's where Derfel has been focusing his reporting.

He says he's been working the health-care beat for 21 years doesn't plant to change his approach — even if that means drawing the ire of politicians. 

"Clearly there was a systemic problem that existed for years before the pandemic, and that is that our long-term care centres have been understaffed. So when the pandemic struck, that placed us in a very vulnerable position," he said.

"But I do think that mistakes were made."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from CBC News. Interview produced by Kevin Robertson. 

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