Quebec premier takes lead on coronavirus crisis as former foes rally behind him

A few weeks ago, McGill University law professor Daniel Weinstock was considering suing the Quebec government for defamation, but today he’s lauding Premier François Legault for his response to COVID-19.

Legault tended to be blustery and boastful during his first year in power, Weinstock said Wednesday, but since the public health crisis hit Quebec in earnest last week, the premier has set the right tone.

“As someone, who as you know, not even a month ago, had a bit of a run-in with this government, you have to give credit where credit is due,” he said in an interview. “Even with respect to a government that, in general, I’ve had a lot of trouble with.”

Legault was among the first leaders in Canada to take immediate steps to stop the spread of COVID-19. Last week, he prohibited all government workers from travelling abroad and banned all public gatherings of more than 250 people.

On Saturday, he urged everyone 70 years and older to stay indoors and cancelled visits to seniors centres and hospitals. The next day, he ordered all bars, gyms, theatres and cinemas to close. Other provinces have since followed suit.

Amy Swiffen, professor of sociology and anthropology at Concordia University, said Quebec “seems to be in the lead when it comes to responding” to the novel coronavirus.

Swiffen, who has been researching Canada’s response to pandemics since the 2003 SARS outbreak, said in an interview, “it seems the measures were taken here a few days before other provinces.”

On Monday, Legault took another novel approach, appealing to influencers in the entertainment and sports world to use their popularity among young people and warn them against congregating in groups. “This is not the time to party,” Legault said.

Not long ago, the premier was facing attacks from minority community and civil rights activists for his government’s approach to reducing immigration and banning some public servants from wearing religious symbols on the job.

In February, his Coalition Avenir Québec government faced an uproar from the academic community when the education minister revoked Weinstock’s invitation to speak at a public forum.

The move followed a newspaper column that falsely stated Weinstock had advocated the symbolic circumcision of young girls, and Education Minister Jean-Francois Roberge eventually apologized.

Today, Weinstock, who has been highly critical of the government’s other policies, particularly around the secularism law, says the premier “has found the right balance of caution, concern, of assurance” during daily briefings to the media alongside the province’s director of public health, Horacio Arruda.

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