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Quebec's 'post-COVID' election campaign has few mentions of deaths, emergency powers

MONTREAL — The French phrase "bain de foule" appears regularly on the agendas of Quebec's major party leaders during the provincial election campaign.
Quebec Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade, right, shakes hand with a shopper at a local farmer's market, Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022 in Quebec City. Quebecers are going to the polls for a general election on Oct. 3rd. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot

MONTREAL — The French phrase "bain de foule" appears regularly on the agendas of Quebec's major party leaders during the provincial election campaign.

The term, which directly translates into English as "crowd bath," is used to describe walkabouts at public places such as markets, regional fairs and busy commercial streets, during which politicians shake voters' hands, pose for photos and occasionally hold babies. 

Politicians bathing in crowds is a sign of the post-pandemic atmosphere of Quebec's election campaign: masks are rare, candidates are up close with supporters and political rallies are back.

"We are in a completely post-COVID campaign," Éric Montpetit, a political science professor at Université de Montréal, said in an interview Tuesday.

Quebec's campaign, which ends election day Oct. 3, is in stark contrast to campaigns conducted during the pandemic in other provinces, such as New Brunswick in 2020, where there were no rallies and where some parties stopped campaigning door-to-door. In Ontario's spring election, candidates wore masks and the leaders of both the NDP and Green Party were forced to pause their campaigns after testing positive for COVID-19.

For some health experts, however, the scant discussion in Quebec about the pandemic represents a missed opportunity to talk about the lessons learned over the past two years.

"I'm both surprised and disappointed," said Dr. Donald Vinh, an infectious disease specialist and medical microbiologist at the McGill University Health Centre, in reference to the lack of discussion about the pandemic on the campaign trail.

He said Quebec has not done enough to prepare for a possible future wave. The incumbent Coalition Avenir Québec party, he added, doesn't want to talk too much about the pandemic because of the high death toll in the province — 16,754 deaths have been attributed to the disease, the highest number in Canada.

The deaths are "a reflection not only of a virulent pathogen and an at-risk population but (they) also tell us that our health-care system is extremely fragile," Vinh said in an interview Tuesday, adding that Quebec's health network remains severely understaffed and that the number of vulnerable people is growing as the population ages.

Vinh said Quebec's political parties aren't talking about the pandemic because voters are ready to move on. "I think most people don't want to hear about COVID anymore and that's why there's no outcry."

Daniel Weinstock, a professor at McGill University's institute for health and social policy, said he agrees that public opinion is likely part of the reason the pandemic isn't a prominent topic during the campaign. While the vast majority of eligible Canadians got two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, uptake of third and fourth doses has been far lower, a sign, Weinstock said, that people want to live in a post-pandemic world.

"It could be that at the end of the day that is the main reason why everybody in this race, the opposition parties, have decided that, even though there's a rational reason to question the government's handling of the pandemic — especially in its earlier phases — this is just not something that the population wants to hear. It's not a vote-getter," he said.

Weinstock, however, said he's disappointed that CAQ Leader François Legault on the campaign trail hasn't really had to defend his government's use of emergency powers during the pandemic. "I've been disappointed at the lack of bandwidth that's been occupied by this government's relatively cavalier manner with liberal democratic rights and freedoms."

Only Conservative Party of Quebec Leader Éric Duhaime has regularly criticized the way Legault handled the pandemic. But Montpetit said those criticisms are mostly intended to appeal to Duhaime's base — and they largely came before the election campaign. The Conservative party leader has focused less often on pandemic measures in recent weeks as he looks to broaden his appeal, Montpetit said.

Legault managed to remain popular throughout the pandemic because his health orders followed public opinion, Montpetit said.

During the early waves of the disease, the government's strict measures were broadly popular. But public sentiment changed in December 2021 and January 2022, when opinion polls began showing that the measures — including the curfew — were losing support. In response, Legault quickly changed course.

"Most people are under the impression that Legault did what he could, that he did a good job, (that) it was a difficult job and someone else wouldn't have done better than him," Montpetit said. 

"So in this context, it's clear that François Legault's adversaries have absolutely no interest in raising this issue and I think that's why we don't talk about it during the campaign."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 28, 2022.

Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press