Quebec Premier François Legault said the provincewide state of emergency order that gives the government special powers will be lifted once kids aged five to 11 are vaccinated.
That means the order will be lifted in early 2022, he said Tuesday during his inaugural speech at the National Assembly to mark the start of a new legislative session — a session, he vowed, that would be the start of sweeping changes across the province as he looks to bolster education, daycare, health care and social solidarity.
After three years of being in power, Legault said on Tuesday that it was necessary to try to breathe new life into his government.
"We are able in Quebec to change things," said the premier. "Nothing can stop Quebec."
In his speech, Legault looked back over the the last three years, claiming his party, the Coalition Avenir Québec, followed through with its campaign promises despite the pandemic. At the same time, he vowed to enhance sports, cultural programming, vocational training and early childhood education.
Education is the best investment for improving society, he said.
One of the ways he will change education is by strengthening "national cohesion" by replacing the province's ethics and religious culture curriculum in schools with a program focused on Quebec culture and citizenship.
"It is also crucial to strongly support Quebec culture," he said.
"Culture propagates pride and pride is a powerful engine for a society. It is a determining factor of national cohesion."
The Legault government prorogued the National Assembly on Oct. 7 and launched a new parliamentary session Tuesday — setting the stage for the next provincial election scheduled for Oct. 3, 2022.
Success in pandemic response, Legault says
Throughout that pandemic, Legault said his government managed to keep kids in school longer than almost any other government in North America and now has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world.
He said the economy never stopped and now is growing faster than anywhere else in Canada. The province lost many, but still succeeded because of the hard work and solidarity of all Quebecers.
"The fight of our life has been a long fight and it's not over," he said. "We must stay vigilant."
The next step is to get the province's children vaccinated, he said, and he expects that to be wrapping up by the end of the year.
At the National Assembly, Quebec's opposition parties began voicing concerns about the state of emergency this summer as it gives the government such wide-ranging power.
But Legault has long remained vague about when he would lift the emergency order, saying this summer it would certainly not be lifted until adults got their second dose.
Legault promises to improve health-care services
Now, nearly 20 months into the pandemic, Legault said there have been many advancements made in the health-care network that the province will be working to build on — bolstering digital services such as tele-medicine which, he said, proved an effective time saver.
The government will also be decentralizing the health system to the local and regional level, announced Legault. He said the government will be reducing its dependence on private agencies to assist the public health network, including nursing staff.
Better access to a family doctor will be among his government's priorities, he said, even if that means forcing doctors to take on more patients — something he promised in 2018 as well.
Legault said high-speed internet access is an essential service across the province and his government intends to ensure even the most remote regions have access by the end of its mandate.
Legault also said his government will launch in the coming days an effort to quickly create the 37,000 needed child-care spaces across Quebec. The current waiting list exceeds 50,000 names.
The premier said protecting the French language will continue to be a priority for his government, and switching briefly to English, said "no minority is better served than English-speaking Quebecers and we are proud of that."
Legault also spoke strongly against racism in the province, though he described Quebec as "one of the places in the world where there is the least racism."
Legault didn't speak to systemic racism, but said it's the duty of Quebecers to fight racism while paying particular attention to Indigenous communities "who have suffered a particularly cruel form of racism with policies aimed at erasing their identity, culture and history."
Opposition slams Legault's speech
The leader of the official opposition, Dominique Anglade, said the premier was slow to address climate change, and failed to discuss the rising cost of living in Quebec.
Anglade, the leader of the Liberal Party, also accused Legault of being in denial about the current labour shortage, pointing to some 200,000 job vacancies yet to be filled.
"He still continues to deny this issue," said Anglade.
The leader of the Parti Québécois (PQ), Paul St-Pierre Plamondon, lambasted Legault for boasting about his party without providing clear solutions to the many problems faced by Quebec's population.
He said there is no concrete plan for creating more childcare spaces, and he accused the premier of presenting incomplete plans to protect French and the environment.
Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, parliamentary leader of Quebec solidaire (QS), said Legault was serving up electoral promises from 2018.
He said housing and the environment are issues which do not figure well into the Legault government's order of priorities.
"There were roughly five minutes out of an hour and a half devoted to the greatest crisis of our time," he said.