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Quebec curfew taking toll on women facing violence, people with mental health issues

MONTREAL — The Quebec government said it introduced a curfew as a common sense way to reduce COVID-19 transmission and ease pressure on hospitals, but women facing violence, young people and low-income residents say the health order has left them beh

MONTREAL — The Quebec government said it introduced a curfew as a common sense way to reduce COVID-19 transmission and ease pressure on hospitals, but women facing violence, young people and low-income residents say the health order has left them behind.

Quebec is the only province in Canada that has imposed a curfew during the pandemic. After forbidding Quebecers from leaving their homes at night for almost five months in 2021 — between January and May — Premier François Legault reintroduced the order on Dec. 31, banning people from being outside without a valid reason between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.

Civil rights advocates have criticized the Legault government for restoring the curfew without providing any studies on the impact of the measure last year. Legault has said it is "common sense" that forcing people to stay home at night inevitably reduces contacts and the chances for the novel coronavirus to spread.

Several reports on Thursday said the government is planning to lift the curfew in the short term, but women's groups in the province say its effects have already been devastating.

"The curfew adds uncertainty, difficulties for women to make decisions," said Claudine Thibaudeau, a social worker for SOS Violence Conjugale, an organization that offers services to domestic violence victims in Montreal. The curfew is once again putting women at greater risk of violence, she says, because it forces them to stay indoors and amplifies their aggressors' control and power.

It comes at a time when Quebec has seen an increase in femicides. There were 21 women and girls killed by men in Quebec in 2020, the first year of the pandemic, according to provincial government statistics. That's compared to 11 women and girls murdered the year before. Quebec saw another deadly year in 2021, with an unofficial count putting the number of femicides at 18.

SOS Violence Conjugale says it has been fielding 184 calls a day since the beginning of January. In comparison, last year the organization received 112 calls a day on average, which was a record at the time.

"Clearly, there is an impact," Thibaudeau said of the curfew. "Women tell us they feel even more captive than usual."

Manon Monastesse with Quebec's federation of women's shelters, said the curfew has made their work protecting women more difficult. "The teams are already exhausted, and while we continue to intervene in critical situations, we have the restrictive measure as an added obstacle," Monastesse said in a recent interview.

The Quebec government has said women fleeing violence aren't subject to the curfew. But Monastesse says the health order adds a layer of complexity to her organization's work. The federation oversees 37 shelters across the province, some of which have up to 70 per cent of their staff missing because of COVID-19.

"We are trying to find a plan B or C to accommodate women … but we cannot transfer them so easily because of the (curfew)," she said.

Kim Lavoie, Canada Research Chair in behavioural medicine and psychology professor at Université du Québec à Montréal, says the Quebec government's approach to reducing COVID-19 transmission — including the curfew — is a "textbook recipe" for increasing mental health issues.

Lavoie said the government is warning people about the seriousness of the situation but not giving them enough tools to protect themselves, such as rapid tests and N95 masks. "It's like saying, 'You have to run a marathon, but first we'll cut your legs.'"

Ernithe Edmond, co-founder of My Mental Health Matters, an online platform promoting mental health among minorities and immigrants aged 15 to 35, says she's discouraged by the lack of thought given to young people. The curfew, she says, negatively impacts students who are getting ready to resume in-person college and university classes.

"It makes everything harder, to leave campus to be home before 10 p.m.," she said. "It becomes overwhelming, especially for those who do not have a quiet place at home to study, an environment that is safe … or a good Wi-Fi connection because too many people are using it at once."

Since the curfew, My Mental Health Matters has been receiving about 20 messages a day from people seeking its services, double the volume it was receiving before, Edmond said. "The curfew impacts mostly those living on lower incomes, or who have no access to other resources and most often, those are immigrants and people living in neglected neighbourhoods," she said.

Maxime Holiday, a sex worker in Montreal who prefers to use her street name for safety reasons, said the curfew has brought an unsettling feeling of déjà vu.

"We know now what it's like to be confined during the winter, with a curfew," Holiday said. "We are still processing the one from last year, and they poked us in our trauma once again."

Holiday says the curfew is forcing sex workers to reduce their hours and take fewer clients, or risk receiving thousands of dollars in fines for being outside after 10 p.m. It makes it hard, she adds, to escape uncomfortable situations with clients and to feel safe, because fewer people are out to witness violent interactions.

"You feel trapped," she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Jan. 13, 2022.

Virginie Ann, The Canadian Press