Council Plans to Restrict Places of Worship in Outremont

New Zoning Laws Affect Local Hasidic Jewish Community

  • Overlooking Outremont Photo Brandon Johnston

In Outremont, several councillors are rushing to implement new protective bylaws to restrict, and redistribute, places of worship.

Councillors of the Montreal borough voted in favour of new zoning bylaws in a special meeting on Nov. 16. The new proposals are set to restrict—and possibly redistribute—places of worship on Bernard and Laurier Avenues. The bill will also ban the further building of synagogues in the area and require that new synagogues be built in one small area along Van Horne Ave., blocks away from the main concentrations of Hasidic residences.

Since then, the conversation has been one of high tension. Councillor Mindy Pollack, who cast the sole dissenting vote and is a member of the Hasidic community, doesn’t understand the urgency of the situation.

“What’s the rush? The answer was, ‘Well, the calendar, the holidays are coming up,” she said. “If the problem’s the calendar, why not just wait after the holidays? The answer was, verbatim, ‘Well, I guess we could have.’”

This proposal comes with no cited public studies, research, or any public committees, which is unusual for urban planning decisions, according to Pollack. New regulations should be put in place only if they are validated by “evidence-based policies,” said Pollack. “It’s a basic part of governing.” As an example, she cited a committee created of locals and elected officials to plan a redesign of Laurier Ave. before the reconstruction of the street was even approved.

With the only public discussion on the matter taking place tomorrow, Councillor Pollack was surprised at the lack of community involvement, especially from the places of worship in Outremont.

“Why aren’t we calling representatives of these places to sit at the table, and see what they think of it,” she said. “What are their needs, their congregations’ needs? This is basic stuff, we do this with everything. At the very least, have one meeting with concerned people.”

Since that first council proposal, the language surrounding the issue has shifted from casual, to emphatic. In a flyer circulating Outremont, titled ‘Crucial Public Consultation On the Future of Laurier and Bernard,” the new regulations are described as necessary for the economic revitalization of the municipality’s commercial districts.

The small ad, a sheet in the same 12-point font used in City of Montreal official releases, and without any noted author, official or otherwise, espouses the exemption of municipal tax paid by places of worship, and the need for preserving the ‘commercial character’ of Outremont’s main streets.

According to the flyer, the regulation will also “save our neighbourhood shops, that are privileged meeting places essential to our qualities of life.”

Local business owner, and member of the Hasidic community, Max Lieberman, doesn’t see such economic protections in the bill, saying that Bernard Ave. is a vibrant, busy tourist street.

“They create an economic argument that sounds good, but has no basis,” he said.

For Lieberman, it’s about much more than economics.

“They’re trying to push us out of Outremont,” he said, unsurprised by the rushed and unclear nature of the proposal. “That’s how it’s always done in Outremont. It’s plotting quietly, all of a sudden creating this dramatic argument, and then suddenly it’s an emergency, and before you know it, a new law is adopted.”

This wouldn’t be the first time the borough and the Hasidic community have clashed. The last attempt for further synagogue permits in 1999 resulted in a ban on synagogues on Van Horne Ave. Fo Niemi, executive of the Montreal advocacy group Centre for Research Action on Race Relations, confirmed the heated history.

“The context is there … especially with the debate on the Charter for Quebec Values, there’s a lot of social rejection and antagonism towards religion and religious expression, religious communities as a whole,” he said. In the last couple of years, there’s been a constant struggle with the approving of new projects to build places of worships, said Niemi.

Niemi cited serious concerns with the arbitrary nature of creating zoning policies without any preliminary studies. There’s a question of how a public administration addresses religion in a way to minimize consequences, he said.

“It can begin with the question of zoning, and soon enough it’s an attack on the Jewish community and Outremont,” Niemi said. “You have to be careful with how these issues are framed.”

As a resident and business owner, Lieberman feels betrayed by his borough.

The last permit given out to the Hasidic community to build more places of worship was allotted 15 years ago in 1999, said Lieberman. You have a community that’s 25 per cent of the borough, that has grown a lot, and yet the borough they live in hasn’t found a reason to help them build synagogues,” said Lieberman. “The opposite, they’re trying to restrict zoning.”

Besides restrictions, there’s also the concern of redistribution. The small square of mostly vacant land proposed as the new place for synagogues is in fact owned by three individual property owners, according to Pollack. As of now, the borough has had no confirmation of the proprietors’ interest in selling or renting the land, she added.

The only public consultation on the matter will be held tomorrow evening at the Centre Communautaire Intergénérationnel.

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