Masks have been mandatory for the province of Quebec’s indoor spaces since July 18, 2020. However, some of the province’s residents disagree with the rule. In the past weeks, demonstrators have held several anti-mask demonstrations across the province, with the largest ones being in Montreal and Quebec City. Indeed, people are arguing that they should have the choice to wear a mask, that this measure is unconstitutional, and that it goes against their rights for the government to mandate their uses.
We have to ask ourselves whether their claim is founded. Can the Quebec government legally force you to wear a mask in indoor spaces?
In order to answer this question correctly, there are three elements to consider: the scientific evidence for masks to fight COVID-19, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom and Quebec’s Public Health Act.
To begin with, many citizens argue that masks cannot be effective against COVID-19. However, as it can be seen, there is an overwhelming medical consensus on the fact that wearing masks prevents the spread of COVID-19. The medical community has disclosed that as many as 40% of people infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 have no symptoms. However, when they talk, cough, or even sneeze, they can still spread the virus to others in the form of respiratory droplets expelled into the air. So, wearing a mask can prevent spreading the virus, even when we don’t know we are sick. The World Health Organization even revised its guidelines about when people should wear cloth masks, after WHO officials reviewed information from researchers in Canada and elsewhere. Scientists strongly recommend wearing masks to control the spread of COVID-19 and as a result, be able to reduce the probability of being contaminated by the virus by 85%. Given this information, it is safe to say that wearing a mask is a very effective way to slow the contamination of the masses.
Continuing, it is claimed that mandatory masking in indoor spaces is a violation of liberty and security of the person. To answer this, we must look at the essence of rights and freedoms in Canada: The Charter of Rights and Freedom (which is part of our country’s constitution). Me Julius Grey, an experienced jurist in the field, has explained to the Droit.inc law review that the measure adopted by Quebec’s government represents a violation of liberty. However, he then mentioned that a measure narrowing someone’s liberty can be considered as constitutional if it is in “accordance with the principles of fundamental justice”, as seen in the first article of the Canadian Charter:
“1. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”
So, now that we know that our rights can be subject to reasonable limits prescribed by a law, how do we figure whether mandatory masking is a violation liberty or security of the person according to the Charter? Firstly, the law wouldn’t be considered arbitrary, as there is a rational connection between the purpose of the law (slow the spread of Covid-19) and its impacts (as seen before, wearing masks helps containing the spread of the virus). Secondly, the law isn’t overbroad, as it is tailored to situations, i.e indoor spaces, where a two-metre distance is not always possible to maintain. Thus, the law is in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice and is constitutional.
Another key point is the fact that Canada is a federation with two orders of government. So, the provincial government is allowed to “enable public health authorities to engage in public health monitoring activities and to give public health authorities the power to take action in case where the health of the population is threatened” with the Public Health Act. And, according to article 123 of the act, “the government or the minister can order any other measure necessary to protect the health of the population while the public health emergency is in effect”. Since we are currently in a public health emergency, mandatory masking can be seen again as a measure that is necessary to protect the health of the population, considering how effective it is to contain the virus in closed spaces.
So, all things considered, the answer is yes: the provincial government of Quebec can legally force you to wear a mask in indoor spaces. Keep in mind that in a pandemic, governments have the right to regulate in the name of safety. In this case, we know that during the first wave of the pandemic, the countries that implemented mandatory masks early were more successful than others at reducing the spread of the virus. Quebec’s government is simply following the lead of countries like Austria, where the government requires masks in grocery stores. All that to say that since we live in an individualistic society, it is important to remind everyone that wearing a mask is not only about protecting the mask-wearer, but rather protecting those around them. It is a way to preserve the safety of the vulnerable around you and is part our duty to keep each other healthy.
BY: Sonia Agougou
Sonia Agougou is a contributor to Youth In Politics– a student-run organization dedicated to informing the youth about politics and world issues. It was founded in October of 2019 in Ajax, Ontario by Zubair Hussain, a student who wanted to pursue a goal of spreading the word about political matters. Starting off as a podcast with a list of guests including Former Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell and Canadian Senator Wanda Bernard, the initiative quickly grew.