Premier Legault has two regrets in his handling of COVID-19 -- sort of

Francois Legault 3 (CTV  News)

The same day Quebec Premier François Legault announced he had to backtrack on his Christmas announcement from two weeks ago, he also happened to face some sharp questioning about his year in review.

In a year-end interview with the magazine L’actualité, Legault was quoted as saying that he hadn’t made any missteps in his handling of COVID-19.

“Did you make a mistake? Something you wish you’d done differently?” asked interviewer Alec Castonguay, speaking to the premier in early November.

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“No, I don't see any,” Legault replied. “When I look at the second wave, I believe that 80 per cent of the problems are resolved in the CHSLDs.”

He said much more in the interview, which is several thousands of words long. But that answer earned him some outraged criticism from opposition parties.

Liberal leader Dominique Anglade said Legault could start with the “lacking and hasty” announcement of the Christmas rules.

Parti Québécois leader Pascal Bérubé said Legault’s statement was "insulting and particularly pretentious,” also tweeting about the interview.

Still, pressed later in the day, Legault stuck to his guns—mostly.

“In that interview, I never said that I was perfect,” he told CTV News when asked. “The journalist asked me what would I have done differently.”

The answer, though? Not much, Legault repeated. There are two things the premier said he would change if he could go back in time, but that doesn’t mean he blames himself for not doing them at the time.

“First, I said that I would have increased salaries for the préposées [orderlies] before the pandemic,” he said.

“But beside that, I wasn’t able to find a place where, with the information I had at the time, that I [should] have taken another decision. I wasn’t able to find one.”

He also said it wasn’t all up to him. “I’m not alone—we’re taking these decisions together every day,” he said. (In the L’actualité article, one person he spoke at length about was his chief of staff, Martin Koskinen.)

“But honestly, even right now, except for the salary of the préposées, with the information I had every time we took a decision, I cannot see something that [was] not done correctly,” he said.

In the original interview, he was also asked whether he had any regrets. He said yes: that he should have given a raise to CHSLD staff before the pandemic ever started.

“I should have increased wages sooner,” he said.

But when asked about this on Thursday, he downplayed his original answer, saying any regrets he has are collectively shared.

“It’s not a question of regret,” he said. “I think that all Quebecers must have a regret not to have fixed the CHSLD problem for years, including my government.”

But “we knew, [going back] many years, that we didn’t have enough employees in our CHSLD[s],” he said. “I’ve tried to [settle] the problem in increasing the budgets, but we weren’t able to fill the jobs that were posted because the salaries were not high enough.”

In his own press conference, Bérubé said the public would decide whether that was fair, saying “7,100 dead, a Quebec overwhelmed by cases…and the premier made no mistake? I leave it to Quebecers to judge.”

An Angus Reid poll released this week found that Legault is tied for most popular premier in the country, with a 64 per cent approval rating—the same as B.C.’s premier, John Horgan.

In the L’actualité interview, Legault said that while he didn’t doubt he’d made the right decisions at the time, that didn’t mean they didn’t keep him up at night, literally, explaining how he took hours to go to sleep in the first few months of the pandemic.

“Some people think I am very sure of myself, but I continually doubted,” he said. “Did we make the right decision?”

When asked what he saw as his biggest accomplishment in handling the virus, he said it was the push to train a huge new class of 10,000orderlies over the summer, also taking personal credit for the plan.

“I came up with this idea one morning,” Legault said. “I had been asking [deputy health minister] Yvan Gendron, for several days, how many employees we were going to need, and I was unable to get a precise figure.

“I said, 'Okay, it's gonna be 10,000!'”

He also said his political course is not at all changed by the COVID-19 experience, and he is, and plans to continue, forging ahead on his promises when elected.

“I am proud of the way we’re managing this crisis, but people go into politics to improve society,” he said. 

“For me, the important thing is the economy and Quebecers’ sense of pride. Things are going well, with Bill 21, and soon the new Bill 101. We are coming up with proposals for culture,” he said.

“My goal is for Quebecers to be even more proud to be Quebecers.”

--With files from The Canadian Press

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