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COVID updates, Feb. 1: Quebec scraps anti-vax tax, allows gyms to reopen Feb. 14

Premier says he didn’t back down on anti-vax tax because of Bernard (Rambo) Gauthier, a tough-talking union official who is reportedly helping organize a protest set to descend on Quebec City.

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Updated throughout the day on Tuesday, Feb. 1. Questions/comments: ariga@postmedia.com

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Top updates

  • Politicians call on Ottawa protesters to leave as they settle in for the long haul
  • Videos: Key moments from today’s Quebec pandemic update
  • Legault says he didn’t back down on anti-vax tax because of ‘Rambo’
  • Updated: Guide to COVID restrictions in Quebec
  • Quebec scraps anti-vax tax, allows gyms to reopen Feb. 14
  • Spotify exodus grows as Graham Nash signals withdrawal over COVID misinformation
  • Videos: Anglade reacts to reports anti-vax tax will be scrapped and that Quebec City will be targeted by a protest convoy
  • Opinion: Erin O’Toole’s leadership is over
  • Quebec reports 63 more deaths as hospitalizations continue to fall
  • Canadiens to offer gifts to young people who get vaccinated at Palais des congrès on Saturday
  • Ottawa protesters say they won’t leave until all COVID restrictions lifted
  • RCMP ready to make arrests at Alberta truck blockade
  • National Assembly returns to work amid growing unease
  • Customers and owners hope this time Quebec restaurants stay open for good
  • Convoy protesters’ use of Nazi symbols ‘shocking in 2022’: genocide expert
  • Quebec conspiracy theorists prey on fears and frustrations: study
  • Opinion: Beware the intoxicating thrall of populism
  • Quebec COVID guide: Vaccinations, vaccine passports, testing, restrictions
  • Sign up for our free nightly coronavirus newsletter

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4:45 p.m.

Thanks for reading

I’ll be back tomorrow morning with another live blog.

In the meantime, you can follow all our coverage via the coronavirus page.

My previous COVID-19 live blogs are available here .


3:50 p.m.

Quebec gym owners, members eagerly await Feb. 14 reopening

Dayna Leiberman said she has a hot date in two weeks: her local Énergie Cardio.

“I know where I’m going to be spending Valentine’s Day,” an excited Leiberman said Tuesday, just after Premier François Legault announced the reopening of Quebec gyms on Feb. 14, as well as spas, indoor golf facilities and climbing gyms — all at half capacity. “I’m definitely thrilled.”

Read our full story, by Jason Magder.

Melanie Shernofsky of Orangetheory fitness.
Melanie Shernofsky of Orangetheory fitness. Photo by Allen McInnis /Montreal Gazette

3:40 p.m.

Politicians call on Ottawa protesters to leave as they settle in for the long haul

From The Canadian Press:

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Politicians at all levels of government are urging protesters who have seized the nation’s capital to roll out, as organizers prepare to stick around even longer by distributing fuel and supplies to the trucks clogging up Ottawa streets.

Crowds have thinned out considerably on Parliament Hill and the surrounding area, where anti-COVID-19 restriction demonstrators have been protesting for days.

But Ottawa remains at a standstill, as trucks and big rigs remain along major roads in the downtown core and many businesses have remained closed since Friday over safety concerns.

“This is so much fun. We have all of Ottawa gridlocked right now,” said organizer Pat King in a video posted online early Tuesday.

Those that remain say they are staying put until all the restrictions are lifted, with the president of the Ottawa Gatineau Hotel Association saying some protesters have been extending their stays at hotels, or are asking to rebook for the coming weekend.

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People who live in the core say the truck horns are blaring into all hours of the night and starting again early in the morning.

Gary Banham said he was harassed on the street by protesters for wearing a mask while out for a walk.

“It’s been difficult because we don’t even want to go outside,” he said.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford said Tuesday that the protesters have been heard, and now it is time for them to go home.

“These businesses that have been closed for, you know, a while now, the restaurants want to reopen. So, you know, I get it, I hear you. But we have to let the people of Ottawa live their lives,” Ford said Tuesday.

Federal ministers offered much the same message Tuesday morning as they arrived on Parliament Hill for a cabinet meeting.

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“You’ve been heard, but now let the people of Ottawa go back to a normal life. That’s what the citizens of Ottawa want. They want their downtown back, and we need to get back to normality,” said federal Innovation Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne.

The city councillor and member of provincial parliament who represent the area have written to Ford to ask for financial assistance to clean up the mess left by demonstrators. They are also seeking support for the already struggling businesses that have been closed since the convoy arrived.

“Further to that, for the convoy protesters that still remain, we are asking for provincial support to investigate and fine all convoy protesters engaged in parking infractions, public health infractions and workplace safety infractions,” Coun. Catherine McKenney and MPP Joel Harden wrote Tuesday.

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While the protests are ostensibly directed at the federal and provincial governments responsible for imposing vaccine mandates and COVID-19 health measures, Ottawa residents have borne the brunt of the impact, Mayor Jim Watson said Monday.

Police estimate they have spent roughly $800,000 per day to supervise the protest and respond to emergencies.

The mayor has already brought up the issue of recovering costs with the prime minister and the local MP, Yasir Naqvi. The mayor’s office said in a statement those requests for assistance have been well received.


3:20 p.m.

Quebec lays out more planned changes to pandemic restrictions


3:15 p.m.

Videos: Key moments from today’s Quebec pandemic update

Quebec scraps “anti-vax tax,” allows gyms to reopen Feb. 14 

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Legault defends decision to backtrack on taxing the unvaccinated 

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Dubé defends Bill 11 against criticism from Quebec’s family doctors 

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2:40 p.m.

Legault says he didn’t back down on anti-vax tax because of ‘Rambo’

Bernard (Rambo) Gauthier, a tough-talking union official who made headlines during the Charbonneau inquiry into corruption in the Quebec construction industry, is reportedly among the organizers of a convoy that says it will target Quebec City for a protest in the coming days.

At Premier François Legault’s press conference today, a reporter asked about Rambo, who posted an aggressive 12-minute video on Facebook yesterday in which he chastised union leaders and said he would be taking part in the Quebec City protest.

“Do you think, considering the tone he uses, that (the protest) can be done with respect?” a reporter asked.

“And did you back down because of the threat of Rambo Gauthier and his gang?” the reporter added, apparently referring to Legault’s decision to abandon his planned anti-vax tax.

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“No, no, not at all,” Legault answered.

“There is no link between Rambo Gauthier and what I am announcing to you today.

“Obviously, when a demonstration degenerates, it’s several people, it’s not just one person. I trust Quebecers. I think it’s important to keep this right to protest, but it’s important to do it with respect, and I expect it to be done with respect.”

Gauthier’s union, FTQ Construction, says it will not financially support the convoy.

“Although it supports the inalienable right to express oneself and demonstrate, FTQ-Construction favours actions aimed at demonstrating greater solidarity than ever with health care workers, in particular by respecting health standards such as than recommended by public health,” the union said in a statement.

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2:30 p.m.

SQ says it will be ready for any demonstrations this weekend in Quebec City

While the possibility on Tuesday was nothing more than a series of rumours and online comments, the Sûreté du Québec said it will remain vigilant and be ready should anyone try and stage a local version of the Ottawa trucker’s protest in Quebec City this weekend.

Read our full story.


2:20 p.m.

Updated: Guide to COVID restrictions in Quebec

We have updated our guide to Quebec pandemic restrictions to reflect changes announced today.

You can read it here.


2 p.m.

Quebec scraps anti-vax tax, allows gyms to reopen Feb. 14

Quebec is scrapping its plan to financially penalize the unvaccinated and will allow gyms to reopen on Feb. 14.

The flipflop on the so-called health contribution for unvaccinated Quebecers comes just three weeks after Premier François Legault announced the measure , which came to be known as an anti-vax tax.

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“I’m worried about the division we see in Quebec,” Legault told a Quebec City press conference this afternoon.

“My role is to try to bring Quebecers together, to stay united as a people.

“This is why we won’t go ahead with the health contribution.

“I understand that this divides Quebecers and right now we need to build bridges, to listen to each other. Quebecers must remain united.”

Since he announced the tax, hospitalizations have decreased and vaccinations have increased, Legault said.

In addition, he said has seen “in the last week or so (that) there’s an increase in the reaction of people, they are angry more than ever. What I’m trying to do is balance between physical health and mental health. And it’s not easy and there’s an evolution.”

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Legault also announced that as of Monday, Feb. 14, sports and artistic activities will be allowed, with a limit of 25 people.

Gyms, spas and indoor golf and climbing centres will also be allowed to reopen that day at half capacity.

“Unfortunately, we can’t go further and announce the relaxation of any other measures,” Legault said, adding he hopes to be able to ease other restrictions in the weeks to come.

He said vaccinations could help speed up Quebec’s reopening. At the moment, too few people have gotten their third dose, the premier said.

A reporter asked: Was it a mistake to announce the anti-vax tax?

Legault did not answer directly. He said since he made the announcement, grumbling about restrictions has increased among Quebecers. “You have to take that into account,” he added. “You have to take balance into account.”

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Legault was asked about reports that a trucker convoy may try to paralyze Quebec City, copying a tactic currently being used by pandemic protesters in Ottawa.

In response, the premier said people have a right to protest.

“Obviously, it has to be done respectfully, not with hateful symbols,” Legault said.

Legault was asked if he will meet the protesters. Legault answered that he’s always open to meeting people “who are in good faith” to answer questions and respond to concerns.

Here are three more key questions that came up.

Does Legault have concerns about the convoy?

“I hope it will be done respectfully and I think Quebecers expect it to be done respectfully,” the premier said.

Legault said his office has spoken with National Assembly security about the protest.

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Will Quebec change the limit on private gatherings in homes ahead of the Super Bowl on Sunday, Feb. 13?

Legault said there is no plan to change those restrictions at the moment but the government is constantly looking at restrictions with input from public health officials.

Is Quebec sticking to the plan to require three doses on vaccine passports at some point?

Health Minister Christian Dubé said it’s too early to “look at what the new conditions of the vaccine passport will be.”

He added: “For the moment, it’s two doses. And when we have all the information (required) and people have had a chance to get their third dose, we’ll look at it. But for the moment there is no change.”

This seems to be a change in direction as Dubé last month said definitively that Quebecers would at some point require three vaccine doses to use vaccine passports.

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12:40 p.m.

Spotify exodus grows as Graham Nash signals withdrawal over COVID misinformation

From the Bloomberg news service:

Singer-songwriters Graham Nash and India Arie on Tuesday announced plans to remove their music from Spotify in protest of its support for controversial podcaster Joe Rogan. The moves come after Neil Young and folk-rocker Joni Mitchell both removed most of their music from the platform last week.

Young, 76, accused Rogan of spreading vaccine misinformation on his show — called “The Joe Rogan Experience” — distributed by Spotify. In response, the platform publicized its internal content rules and Rogan pledged more balance and research.

Nash said he agrees with his former Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young bandmate after “having heard the COVID-19 disinformation spread by Joe Rogan on Spotify” and is requesting that his solo recordings be removed from the platform, according to a statement from the singer.

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Arie intends to leave Spotify because of Rogan’s “language about race,” she wrote in a note on Instagram.

The combined exodus further escalates a dispute over the streaming service’s support for Rogan and intensifies questions about Spotify’s responsibility for monitoring content distributed on its platform to hundreds of millions of listeners.

Young’s removal of his music from the service led the hashtag #spotifydeleted to trend on social media. While it’s not clear if all of the artists’ labels will comply with their requests, Arie’s efforts to draw attention to Rogan’s comments on race signals the backlash is spreading beyond COVID misinformation.

“Neil Young opened a door that I must walk through,” Arie wrote. “I believe in freedom of speech. However, I find Joe Rogan problematic for reasons other than his COVID interviews. For me, it’s also his language around race.”

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Rogan, 54, was criticized last month after his interview with Jordan Peterson, a conservative YouTube personality. In that conversation, Rogan said it’s “very strange” that anyone would call themselves Black unless they’re from the “darkest place” of Africa.

The comments and Spotify’s willingness to provide a platform for such rhetoric are “deeply disturbing,” David Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, said in an e-mailed statement last week. “Joe Rogan and his friends like Jordan Peterson can describe it however they want – as ’they’re just asking questions’ or ’they’re just discussing skin colour’ – but the simple reality remains that they are doing so to perpetuate a system where heterosexual cisgender white men remain in positions of power while acting like they’re targeted victims.”

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Separately this week, the creators of “Science Vs”, an award-winning podcast that streams on Spotify, announced on Twitter that they will focus on fact-checking Rogan and other sources of misinformation on the platform and pause production of other content. The show is produced by Gimlet, which Spotify purchased in 2019.

Spotify has invested billions in podcasting and advertising technology to turn its money-losing music platform into a profitable audio service. It struck a deal in 2020 with Rogan worth more than $100 million. In contrast, many musicians say their streaming royalties are far too meagre.


12:30 p.m.

Videos: Anglade reacts to reports anti-vax tax will be scrapped and that Quebec City will be targeted by a protest convoy

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11:35 a.m.

Beijing Olympics’ COVID cases mounting at faster pace than Tokyo

From the Bloomberg news agency:

Beijing identified more than 100 coronavirus infections over the past three days among those in China for the Winter Olympics, taking the cumulative number of cases to 248 with four days to go before the opening ceremony.

At an average of 36 new cases a day, the increase has more than doubled the three-day average for Jan. 25-27 period. The total count already exceeds the number of infections Tokyo had in the run-up to the summer games last year, which were held before the more infectious omicron variant began to circulate. The Japanese capital tallied 121 Olympic-related cases in the three weeks before its opening ceremony.

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The number of athletes and coaches who have tested positive in Beijing, meanwhile, has been relatively low. As of Sunday, there had only been 51 infections among the various teams. Organizers have attributed 197 cases to other stakeholders, a group that includes journalists and diplomats.

A pickup in Olympic-related COVID-19 cases is expected as more personnel arrive, Huang Chun, a top virus-control official on the Chinese committee organizing the event, said at a briefing in Beijing on Saturday. There has been no spread of the virus inside the closed-loop so far, he added.

All those in the Chinese capital for the Olympics are being kept within a tightly controlled bubble, as authorities look to ensure that outbreaks in the broader population are not seeded by travellers from abroad. China is the last major economy still pursuing a so-called COVID Zero approach to dealing with the pandemic, which employs partial lock-downs, mass testing and sealed borders to stamp out the virus.

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For the Olympics, however, Beijing has loosened some of those protocols in the closed-loop in an effort to ensure the games can proceed with less disruption. That included lowering the testing threshold at which participants are considered virus-free. Those determined to be a close contact with someone infected by the virus are also being required to quarantine for just seven days, instead of the minimum of 14 days, Chinese authorities require outside the Olympics.


11:30 a.m.

Opinion: Erin O’Toole’s leadership is over

“In supporting the protest in Ottawa, the Conservatives are making the same Faustian bargain the Republican party made with Angry America and its champion, Donald Trump. The Republicans thought they could tap into working-class anxiety and channel it at the ballot box. Too late, they realized they had tapped into far more, including xenophobia, misogyny and white supremacy. And if they disagree with Trump, they are now vilified and excommunicated.

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“Conservatives need to take a long hard look at themselves, what they stand for, who’s leading their parade, and whose company they keep. Because if they don’t, they will wake up one day and they won’t recognize the face in the mirror.”

Read Tasha Kheiriddin’s full column.


11:25 a.m.

Chart: Current situation vs. one year ago


11:25 a.m.

Chart: Hospitalizations – vaccinated vs. unvaccinated


11:25 a.m.

Charts: Quebec cases, deaths


11:25 a.m.

Charts: Quebec’s vaccination campaign


11:05 a.m.

Quebec reports 63 more deaths as hospitalizations continue to fall

Quebec has recorded 2,730 new cases of COVID-19, the provincial government announced this morning.

The case tally only includes people who received PCR tests at government screening clinics. It does not accurately reflect the number of cases since it does not include the results of home rapid tests.

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In addition, 63 new deaths were reported, bringing the cumulative total to 13,286.

Hospitalizations continue to fall and are at their lowest level in three weeks.

Some other key statistics from Quebec’s latest COVID-19 update:

  • Montreal Island: 470 cases, 6 deaths.
  • Net decrease in hospitalizations: 36, for total of 2,852 (207 entered hospital, 243 discharged).
  • Net decrease in intensive care patients: 5, for total of 218 (19 entered ICUs, 24 discharged).
  • 21,699 PCR tests conducted Sunday.
  • 52,345 vaccine doses administered over previous 24 hours.

10:45 a.m.

Canadiens to offer gifts to young people who get vaccinated at Palais des congrès on Saturday

The Montreal Canadiens are working with a regional health authority to encourage young people to get vaccinated.

Children and teenagers under 18 who get the jab at the Palais des congrès on Saturday, Feb 5 between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. will receive an “exclusive gift” from the Habs. It’s unclear what the gift will be and supply will be limited.

The Canadiens are encouraging young people to wear their blue-white-red jerseys to the vaccine clinic. Youppi, the team mascot, will be on hand.

The event was announced today by the hockey club and the CIUSSS du Centre-Sud-de-l’Île-de-Montréal.

Vaccines at the Palais des congrès (1001 Place Jean-Paul-Riopelle) are available with or without appointments.

“The Montreal Canadiens encourage all eligible individuals to receive their COVID-19 vaccine,” the team said. “When it comes to stopping the spread of the virus, we are all on the same team.”

Yann Fraioli, 13, gets vaccinated by nurse El Mahfoud Mourouane during walk-in vaccination clinic outside the Bell Centre prior to the Canadiens playoff game against the Vegas Golden Knights in Montreal on June 18, 2021.
Yann Fraioli, 13, gets vaccinated by nurse El Mahfoud Mourouane during walk-in vaccination clinic outside the Bell Centre prior to the Canadiens playoff game against the Vegas Golden Knights in Montreal on June 18, 2021. Photo by John Mahoney /Montreal Gazette

10:20 a.m.

Legault expected announce gym reopenings, flipflop on anti-vax tax

Premier François Legault will hold a press conference today at 1 p.m., accompanied by Health Minister Christian Dubé and public health director Dr. Luc Boileau. I’ll have live coverage and a video feed.

Legault will reportedly announce that gyms can reopen on Feb. 14, the latest in a gradual, week-by-week relaxation of some pandemic measures.

There are also reports that he will cancel his plan to impose a so-called anti-vax tax, a financial penalty the premier said would have to be paid by the unvaccinated. Legault announced the measure last month, vowing to introduce a bill in the National Assembly in February.

The Legault government started backing away from the new tax yesterday, with Dubé telling TVA that the measure was “no longer a priority.”

Opposition parties were against the controversial plan and some observers suggested Legault was bluffing in an attempt to convince more unvaccinated Quebecers to get the jab.


9:50 a.m.

Ottawa protesters say they won’t leave until all COVID restrictions lifted; RCMP ready to make arrests at Alberta truck blockade

Crowds have thinned out considerably on Parliament Hill and the surrounding area, where anti-COVID restrictions demonstrators have been protesting for days, The Canadian Press reports.

But those that remain say they are staying put until all the restrictions are lifted, with the president of the Ottawa Gatineau Hotel Association saying some protesters have been extending their stays at hotels, or are asking to rebook for the coming weekend.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said yesterday he will not meet with anyone involved, noting reports that some participants have been seen harassing local businesses, waving Nazi flags, defecating on residential lawns, urinating on National War Memorial and stealing food from the homeless.

The Ottawa Paramedic Association reported that paramedics asked for police escorts after rocks were hurled at an ambulance from a truck in the convoy.

But Conservative Deputy Leader Candice Bergen said Trudeau was “gaslighting” the protesters, who deserve the chance to be heard and be given some respect.

She said the protesters she met with from her home province of Manitoba on Sunday are “good people, patriotic, peace-loving.”

Canada Unity, the group behind the convoy, originated during the 2019 pro-pipeline convoy to Ottawa but morphed into an anti-COVID restrictions protest after the pandemic began.

The vaccine mandate for truckers that took effect on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border earlier this month added more fire to the demands and helped trigger the bigger convoy that descended on Ottawa in the last week.

Meanwhile, a blockade in southern Alberta at the United States border is entering its fourth day.

A convoy of commercial trucks, vehicles and camper vans has been blocking the highway at the Coutts border crossing since Saturday to protest COVID-19 restrictions.

Mounties said in a statement last night that they thought there was a path to resolve the matter, but protesters chose not to comply.

They say the protest is no longer lawful, and resources are in place to make arrests and tow away vehicles.

Some demonstrators say they have no plans to leave.

Coutts Mayor Jim Willett says he wants them gone, as mail can’t be delivered and some kids haven’t been able to go to school because their bus can’t get into the community.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has said it’s up to local authorities to enforce provincial legislation.

A law passed last year allows for additional penalties against protesters blockading highways and other infrastructure.


9:30 a.m.

Quebec will reopen gyms on Feb. 14: report

The Legault government will reopen the province’s gyms Feb. 14 “under certain conditions” and permit group sports by adults, according to a report published Tuesday in the Journal de Montréal .

Read our full story.


9:30 a.m.

National Assembly returns to work amid growing unease

With support for COVID-19 pandemic restrictions waning and many Quebecers on edge about what lies ahead, politicians are set to resume work at the National Assembly on Tuesday amid much uncertainty.

It’s the last sitting of the legislature before the October general election, which means the governing Coalition Avenir Québec and four opposition parties will be pulling out all the stops to show they are worthy of voters’ confidence.

Read our full story, by Philip Authier.


9:20 a.m.

Customers and owners hope this time Quebec restaurants stay open for good

By late afternoon Monday, there wasn’t a free seat in sight at the bar of The Burgundy Lion on Notre-Dame St., and diners were starting to be seated for dinner. Clearly they hadn’t wasted much time to take advantage of the Quebec government’s decision to allow restaurants to reopen at 50 per cent capacity as of Monday.

Read our full story, by Brendan Kelly.

Bartender Maggie Morris pours a pint of beer while sharing some new bar talk with Brigeen O’keefe and Javier Lee at Burgundy Lion restaurant on Monday Jan. 31, 2022.
Bartender Maggie Morris pours a pint of beer while sharing some new bar talk with Brigeen O’keefe and Javier Lee at Burgundy Lion restaurant on Monday Jan. 31, 2022. Photo by Pierre Obendrauf /Montreal Gazette

9:20 a.m.

Convoy protesters’ use of Nazi symbols ‘shocking in 2022’: genocide expert

Jewish advocacy organizations and human-rights experts roundly condemned the blatant use of Nazi symbols during this weekend’s protests in Ottawa against COVID-19 measures.

“I was flabbergasted,” said Kyle Matthews, executive director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University.

Read our full story, by Marian Scott.

A person taking part in the “Freedom Convoy” rolls past the Manitoba Legislative Building in Winnipeg on Monday, Jan. 24, 2022.
A person taking part in the “Freedom Convoy” rolls past the Manitoba Legislative Building in Winnipeg on Monday, Jan. 24, 2022. Photo by KEVIN KING /Winnipeg Sun

9:20 a.m.

Quebec conspiracy theorists prey on fears and frustrations: study

Some of Quebec’s most popular conspiracy theorists have preyed on people’s fears and frustrations during the COVID-19 pandemic to drive their own political agendas, a new study says.

At the same time, it warns, leaders from different areas where conspiracies are known to take hold — including far-right groups, and certain religious and spiritual communities — have found common ground during the pandemic and are now more intertwined than before.

Read our full story, by Jesse Feith.


9:20 a.m.

Opinion: Beware the intoxicating thrall of populism

“The group behind the blockade of big rigs that has downtown Ottawa paralyzed may call itself Canadian Unity, but it is having the opposite effect on the public at large.

“Social media is being weaponized. Neighbours are turning against each other in virtual community forums where they usually share tips on contractors and seek help finding their lost pets. And many people find themselves torn over whether to unfollow friends and family who have shown their true colours.

“All of this, however, is a barometer indicating the state of the Canadian polity 23 months into a demoralizing global pandemic: it is highly polarized, deeply divided and just itching to lash out.”

Read Allison Hanes’ latest column.


9:15 a.m.

Quebec COVID guide: Vaccinations, vaccine passports, testing, restrictions

Vaccinations

Vaccine passport

Testing

Pandemic restrictions


8:30 a.m.

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ariga@postmedia.com

Read my previous live blogs here.


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