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Legault fails to secure agreement on COVID-19 bill critic labels 'authoritarian'


Quebec's opposition parties have succeeded in stalling a bill they say revealed the government's "authoritarian" streak and risked a return to the wild, corrupt days in the construction sector.

The legislature broke for the summer Friday, with members failing to reach a deal on the government's Bill 61, which seeks to fast-track 202 construction projects for things such schools, seniors residences, road work and public transit.

Premier Francois Legault has said the bill is critical to relaunching the province's economy following weeks of pandemic-induced shutdowns. His government even created a website to counter criticism of the legislation and promote his government's side.

Legault wrote on Facebook Friday morning that he "still had hope" his opponents would vote for the bill in principle and move it forward. The Facebook post didn't work, and the opposition parties remained united against Bill 61. Liberal party Leader Dominique Anglade told reporters the legislation was undemocratic.

"It's not because you have a majority (in the legislature) that you can be authoritarian," she said.

Bill 61 would allow the government to fast-track environmental reviews and the tendering process for major construction projects. It removes the right for property owners to contest the expropriation of their land by the government.

And the bill initially allowed Legault to prolong the public health state of emergency indefinitely, a power the Quebec bar association said doesn't exist anywhere else in Canada. Legault eventually modified that clause, permitting him to extend the state of emergency until October.

Legault also conceded to other amendments, but in the end it wasn't enough, and passage of the bill will have to wait until the fall session. 

His government, despite having a majority in the legislature, wasn't able to force it through because the bill had been tabled too late and needed consent of the opposition.

Legault's Coalition Avenir Quebec wasn't alone in supporting Bill 61. Cities across the province, hurting from a loss of revenue due to the COVID-19 crisis, wanted legislators to come to a deal. Quebec's construction sector and the federation of the province's chambers of commerce also wanted the bill to move forward.

But others said the legislation encouraged a return to the old days that triggered a major , years-long public inquiry into corruption in the construction sector.

That inquiry heard from witnesses in the police and from insiders, explaining how Quebec's construction sector had been deeply infiltrated by organized crime and was connected to illegal donations to political parties.

A committee tasked with following up on the inquiry's recommendations told legislators that Bill 61 created a favourable climate for corruption and collusion.

Also on Friday, the parties ended the legislation session by taking stock of the government's handling of the COVID-19 crisis. Quebec solidaire said the government had little to be proud of after the province suffered more deaths attributed to the virus than the rest of the country combined.

Quebec reported an additional 43 deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus Friday, for a total of 5,148. Health authorities said 21 of the deaths were recorded in the past 24 hours, while the other 22 occurred before June 4.

The province said it had confirmed 181 new cases of COVID-19, bringing the total number of cases since the pandemic began in Quebec to 53,666.

There are 840 people in hospital with the virus, a decrease of 31 from the previous day. And of those in hospital, 107 are in intensive care, a drop of seven.

Authorities said 20,823 people have recovered from the virus.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 12, 2020.

The Canadian Press

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