Outremont council’s vote thwarts efforts to build community ties

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A Hassidic teen on a unicycle in Outremont. Seen in the background is a mini-bus currently banned in Outremont - Purim 2003

A Hassidic teen on a unicycle in Outremont. Seen in the background is a mini-bus currently banned in Outremont - Purim 2003

The following article was written by Mindy Pollak, a hassidic woman of Outremont who sits on the newly created Comité consultatif sur les relations intercommunautaires d’Outremont. This article was published in the Montreal Gazette on Feb 15, 2013

The Hassidic community is deeply saddened by the results of a vote on Monday, Feb. 4, at the Outremont borough council.

Purim is celebrated every year on the 14th of the Hebrew month of Adar — i.e., in 2013, beginning at sunset next Saturday night. It commemorates a miracle that happened to the Jewish people in ancient Persia. On Purim, children dress up in costumes and go from house to house — collecting funds for the poor, and spreading cheer throughout the community. In every city where there are Hassidim, boys aged 12 to 16 are transported by minibuses to celebrate in their neighbourhoods. These buses ensure the safety of the children, and their use is supported by the police.

The roots of the problem that came to a head Feb. 4 go back to 2003, when the borough council passed a bylaw to put an end to people being able to board or get off of intercity buses inside of Outremont (like those the Hassidic community had been chartering to travel between Montreal and New York).

The bylaw, though, was passed in a rush, and without a lot of thought. Buses were defined in the bylaw as being “double-axle” vehicles — a definition that had been pulled from the Quebec Highway Code. The intention of the bylaw was never to prohibit the small minibuses that the community uses on Purim; but that, as it turns out, has been its effect, as single-axle minibuses are hard to find.

That said, there were no political problems with the rented double-axle minibuses until 2009, which was when independent councillor Céline Forget took it upon herself to investigate the various ways in which she said the Hassidic community was flouting municipal regulations.

Last year during Purim, Madame Forget, knowing that the Hassidim would be using buses that could be qualified as illegal under the 2003 bylaw, decided to police the holiday herself. As some may recall, this turned into a regrettable confrontation that made its way to YouTube.

In an effort to avoid a repeat of this spectacle in 2013, representatives of the Hassidic community made numerous efforts to request that the bylaw be amended. In this atmosphere of tension and stalemate, the Outremont borough created the Comité consultatif sur les relations intercommunautaires d’Outremont. Borough councillor Ana Nunes offered to chair the committee. Composed of ordinary citizens, its mandate is to help foster harmonious relations between the various communities of Outremont.

Beginning in May 2012, the committee heard from several parties: officers of the local police station in Outremont, Station 24; the director of Outremont public security; members of the Hassidic community; and Pierre Lacerte, an opponent of the Hassidic community. In addition, the committee spent countless hours verifying that appropriate buses do not in fact exist.

After much deliberation, the committee drafted a recommendation for a two-day exemption to the 2003 bylaw. A long-term solution would have to be found, but for 2013, it was important to have something in place.

For its part, the Hassidic community agreed to:

Distribute pamphlets explaining the holiday and informing neighbours they would do their utmost to limit any inconvenience.

Pursue parking solutions on one-way streets in order to facilitate a smooth flow of traffic.

Appoint a representative to ensure that everything would run smoothly.

The majority of council was in favour of such an amendment but apparently had second thoughts about being perceived as “giving in” to the Hassidic community; the proposed amendment was removed from the agenda.

But then at the last minute before the Feb. 4 council meeting, a watered-down version was tacked on as an addendum. During question period, three individuals (all affiliated with Madame Forget) took the microphone and stated their opposition to any changes to the bylaw. In spite of the fact that the proposed amendment wasn’t on the official agenda until the very last minute, they seemed to know everything about it.

The mayor asked for a councillor to second the motion brought forward by councillor Nunes.

There was a hush of anticipation, and when no one spoke up, the changes fell through.

It is disappointing for the Hassidic community that Outremont borough council did not see fit to ensure that the children celebrating Purim do so in a safe and legal environment.

Instead, the community will once again next weekend be treated like outlaws. We know from past experience that there will be a small but determined group snapping pictures, blocking traffic, and intimidating the children.

What is the purpose of an intercultural committee if the borough council is not interested in taking its recommendations seriously? While we remain hopeful a solution can be found, the attitude inside the Outremont borough council is symptomatic of a larger issue. One can’t help but wonder about a borough council that repeatedly punishes a minority group with idiosyncratic bylaws that exist nowhere else in Montreal, or even the world.

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  1. Alex
    February 19, 2013

    CBC Daybreak had an interview with Ms Pollak yesterday morning here:

    And on their site here