Quebec Premier Francois Legault walks to question period with press attache Ewan Sauves, right, and members of his staff at the legislature in Quebec City, Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021. A legal challenge to Quebec's plan to make vaccination mandatory for healthcare workers is being heard today by Quebec Superior Court. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot

Court hears request to put off Quebec’s vaccine mandate for health-care workers

Court hears request to put off Quebec’s vaccine mandate for health-care workers

MONTREAL — A legal challenge to Quebec’s vaccination mandate for health-care workers was before Quebec Superior Court on Wednesday, with the judge assuring he will proceed even if the province decides to further delay a deadline set for next month.

The provincial government is threatening to suspend unvaccinated health network staff without pay as of Nov. 15, but Premier François Legault raised the possibility this week of postponing the deadline. It has already been pushed back once after initially being set for Oct. 15.

Superior Court Justice Michel Yergeau began hearing arguments for an injunction Wednesday and said he will render a decision on the morning of Nov. 15, regardless of what the government decides. Unvaccinated health-care workers are seeking to have the vaccination edict delayed until their full legal challenge is heard.

The fundamental question before the court is whether mandatory vaccination and suspension without pay for those who refuse is legal and constitutional. The trial on that matter will not be until next year.

A lawyer representing unvaccinated employees argued the government is legally obliged to ensure the protection of the population and “protect, maintain and improve” health services.

Natalia Manole argued the government’s decision to postpone the Oct. 15 deadline, citing concerns about an interruption in service, shows that applying the decree would do more harm than good for the population.

Manole cited the recent reduction in service at the Lachine Hospital emergency department in Montreal as an example of the type of impact a large-scale suspension would cause.

She raised the possibility of unnecessary deaths, delayed surgeries and the shuttering of long-term care and hospital beds across the province. “You are the only one who can intervene so that this situation does not happen,” she told the judge.

Outside the courtroom, she said the “deaths, suffering, absolutely catastrophic situations” that would result if unvaccinated workers were suspended meet the test of irreparable harm required to grant an injunction.

Yergeau noted in court that the government has already postponed the deadline citing dangerous consequences. He also reminded Manole that he is obliged to assume the government was acting in the public interest. He told the court that his role is limited to assessing the legality of the decree and not its political merits.

“If the government made the wrong decision, it will have to answer to the population,” the judge said.

Lawyers for the provincial government dismissed the disaster scenario in their own arguments, telling the court there was no proof the health system would collapse when the decree is applied in mid-November.

Stéphanie Garon, a lawyer representing the province’s attorney general, pointed to an affidavit from Dr. Lucie Opatrny, the province’s deputy health minister, which noted that while a vaccine mandate would result in some decrease in certain types of care, she personally assured that critical care and urgent care would be offered.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 27, 2021.

Pierre Saint-Arnaud, The Canadian Press