Quebec premier could be transparent about COVID-19 pandemic deliberations, but it sets a precedent: expert

Quebec Premier François Legault could be transparent and voluntarily lift the veil on decisions made by his crisis management team during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a constitutional law expert.

"The ball is in (his) camp," said Professor Patrick Taillon.

Thursday, Quebec Solidaire (QS) called on the government to stop acting so secretive.

The party's health critic, Vincent Marissal, laments an apparent lack of transparency by the government is blocking coroner Gehane Kamel, who is investigating the mass deaths of seniors in the province's CHSLDs, from asking all her questions.

Kamel came to a "pragmatic" agreement with Quebec's Attorney General that allowed her to question former health minister Danielle McCann, but only on certain issues, Marissal argues.

However, when asked by a lawyer involved in the investigation how the discussion surrounding caregivers concluded, McCann said, "I can't answer."

"The Legault government is hiding behind government secrecy," said Marissal, who is calling for a public and independent inquiry into the management of the pandemic. "It's kind of a muzzling of questions that might be a little too intrusive about the decision-making process... It's frustrating."

Kamel did address the subject on Nov. 18. In speaking with lawyers in the room, she defended her decision to compromise in order to respect the government's wish not to reveal the details of its decision-making process.

"It is a privilege that is enshrined in law. I could have decided to debate it... and then we would have been in Superior Court... for months," she said.

That would have put off the inquest "forever," according to the coroner.

"Instead, I favoured the approach of completing this inquest... without getting too involved in the strategic discussions. It seems to me that for the families, it's a lesser evil," she added.

Marissal deplores the fact that the coroner has to "circulate in a very small street" instead of a "boulevard or a much wider highway."

According to Taillon, the coroner made a "cost-benefit" calculation -- the lifting of government secrecy is "extremely rare," he points out.

Cabinet secrecy is "fundamental, constitutional, protected, shielded," adds the Laval University professor, noting there must be free speech in cabinet, "otherwise it wouldn't work."

Taillon points out if there was to be some sort of lifting of secrecy, it could only be partial and selective to target information deemed necessary for the investigation.

Either way, he says whatever is revealed will always be unsatisfactory to the opposition parties and could set a precedent for future investigations.

"A government that starts messing with its secrecy voluntarily, well, it's going to do it again and the fact that it did it once will become an argument to do it again," he explains.

The challenge for the Legault government now is to show that it can cooperate with investigations and provide the most information possible without compromising itself, Taillon notes.

Thursday, Health Minister Christian Dubé again asked opposition parties to wait until the end of the three inquiries held by the ombudsman, coroner and health commissioner before passing judgement.

He insists the investigations will show that his government did not have all the necessary information at hand at the beginning of the crisis to "manage properly."

"The three inquiries that have either been launched or completed will help us get to the bottom of this. I think this is the right way to proceed," he said.

Dubé also announced that he will introduce a bill on Friday regarding the management of information in the health and social services sector.

-- This report by The Canadian Press was first published in French on Dec. 3, 2021.

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