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Curfew vs. COVID: Extending police powers is questionable at best

A homeless man got a curfew fine, public health admits there’s no science there and the province remains unwilling to address where most COVID outbreaks are happening.

Quebec has officially become the first (and, presently, the only) Canadian province to have implemented a month-long night-time curfew in the fight against COVID-19. Unless you have a valid reason and a note from your employer, you are forbidden to be outside between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m. Those who violate the curfew and are stopped by police risk heavy fines.

As a freelance writer working from the comfort of my home, this curfew does not affect me. I make my living typing away on my laptop and my business attire currently consists of PJs or sweatpants. I neither have children nor a dog that needs walking. Other than the crushing isolation of 10 months of solitary living and the lack of a backyard, I am lucky.

An 8 p.m. curfew in January, when the sun sets at 4:35 p.m., all restaurants and venues are closed, and house visits are off-limits, will change substantially little in my life. As a white woman, I also recognize my privilege when it comes to my relationship with police. Here’s a link to a woman gingerly being helped down the U.S. Capitol stairs by riot police during last week’s storming by a pro-Trump mob, if you’re not sure what I mean. But just because this curfew does not affect us equally does not mean that we should not question it.

“Good judgment of police”

I watched last Thursday’s press conference by Quebec’s Public Security Minister Geneviève Guilbault. She’s one of those politicians who has the uncanny ability to barely blink when the tough questions start coming from journalists. It’s a talent not every politician has. But it doesn’t matter how calm and unrattled she appeared, every time she said, “We are relying on the good judgement and discernment of police officers to apply the curfew,” she made me nervous. She insisted that police officers are used to making the tough calls in the application of the laws and the rules.

How many times, however, have we seen their lack of good judgment, their lack of restraint and empathy, their inability to de-escalate and protect? While I don’t want to paint the entire force with one broad brush, people are right to be skeptical of her assertion.

Civil rights advocates, Indigenous and racialized people, sex workers out on the streets and those who work with marginalized communities experiencing homelessness are worried about this curfew because they know better. They know from first-hand experience that law enforcement’s “good judgment and discernment” is completely arbitrary and easily open to abuse.

Who’s most likely to be racially profiled?

The Montreal police department has faced long-standing accusations of racial profiling and systemic racism. A report commissioned by the city in 2019 found that Indigenous people and Black people were four to five times more likely than white people to be stopped by police. Indigenous women were 11 times more likely to be stopped by police than white women.Young Arab people were four times more likely than white people to be targeted for street checks.

Who is most likely to be working shift work, those late-night jobs in factories and manufacturing, and as orderlies in hospitals? Who’s most likely to be taking that 2 a.m. bus back home or leaving for work at 4 a.m.? Who is most likely to be working as a delivery person for a restaurant?

Chef Colin Perry from Montreal’s Dinette Triple Crown told me he’s not comfortable keeping any of his staff out past curfew (his drivers are students from Tunisia) and will be closing early to ensure all his employees make it home before 8 p.m. But that, in turn, forces restaurants (already hard hit by the pandemic) to either close early or rely on predatory delivery apps, already gouging owners. It’s easy to see, once you speak to people on the ground, that a curfew has far-reaching implications and consequences.

“But, if you’re going to work, and you have your employers’ note, you’re good,” I can hear some of you saying. Again, privilege. Many BIPOC are also recent immigrants or asylum seekers who have fled countries where curfews and stops by police are deeply traumatic and triggering experiences. Curfews don’t affect everyone in the same way.

Even if you belong to the group that believes that a curfew was necessary “shock treatment,” as Premier Legault referred to it, we can’t ignore the fact that for some communities who are socio-economically disadvantaged and often the targets of greater scrutiny by police, this curfew can be dangerous and punitive.

What about those experiencing homelessness?

Premier Legault says the curfew applies to them, too, and insists there are enough places to seek shelter during the night-time curfew. But those working with them say “not even close.”

The minute the curfew was confirmed, I saw Nakuset, the Director of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal and co-manager of Resilience Centre, frantically inquiring on Twitter whether the city’s metro would remain open after 8 p.m. To the people who work closely with Montreal’s homeless population, Premier Legault’s and Minister Guilbault’s assurances that the homeless won’t be ticketed means little. They were quickly proven right. The Journal de Montréal recently reported that a person who is homeless was given a $1,550 ticket over the weekend.

The STM has confirmed that metros will remain open and that they don’t have the staff to check everyone — vaguely implying that they won’t be bothering people. Again, leaving it up to the discretion and good judgment of police and security leaves too many things to chance.

Is the curfew un mal nécessaire, a last-ditch effort to help struggling ERs and overwhelmed healthcare professionals? Perhaps. The situation is certainly alarming and overwhelmed staff are sounding the alarm. Recent government reports, however, have shown most community transmission is taking place in classrooms and workplaces like manufacturing and construction, all areas the CAQ refuses to shut down, despite pleas from parents, teachers and epidemiologists.

How effective is a curfew without other essential measures?

Without massive contact tracing, proper safeguards like ventilation and portable air filters in schools, or additional restrictions in problematic workplaces, a night-time curfew might do little to curb the spread of the virus. Even Quebec’s public health director, Dr. Horacio Arruda, admitted last week that there is no scientific proof that curfews work.

Faced with an unwillingness to address outbreaks at work sites and schools, this curfew might just be primarily for show. COVID theatrics by a government that had months to prepare for the second wave and yet failed to invest in and implement real measures. I worry that a curfew is simply a sidestepping of blame, an unwillingness to admit accountability for the government’s own failings.

Yes, we all have the collective responsibility to do all we can to help our bewildered and exhausted healthcare professionals. But even while respecting the curfew, we should remain aware of the fact that not only is it a potentially unnecessary extension of police powers, it also opens the door to outright abuse where some groups are concerned. ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.