A controversial by-law passed by the Outremont borough council last December, which banned the building of new places of worship on Avenue Bernard, an often congested road in the neighbourhood, will now undergo a referendum after the Avenue Bernard public registry garnered the necessary 367 signatures to force a referendum. The by-law also applied to Avenue Laurier, but the street’s public registry only received four of the necessary 176 signatures to force a referendum.
If the by-law were to be implemented, the construction of new places of worship would be banned throughout the entire borough, as a ban on new development already applies to residential streets and Avenue Van Horne, another high-traffic commercial avenue.
Officially, the by-law does not discriminate based on religion, but it would theoretically restrict the construction of any religious edifice in the neighborhood, regardless of religious affiliation. However, in practice the law would disproportionately affect Outremont’s sizeable Hasidic Jewish population, which comprises about a quarter of Outremont’s 25,000 residents: there are only four synagogues in the borough, servicing a combined capacity of approximately 400 Hasidic Jews.
On December 7, 2015, at an Outremont borough meeting, councillor Jacqueline Gremaud defended the council’s vote. “Only small sections of the street are being regulated,” she said in French. “On [Avenue] Bernard, we are talking about 200 or 300 meters.”
She explained that their intentions are to keep commercial streets free for everyone to use. “What we hope to accomplish,” Gremaud said, “is to assure that undeveloped parcels of land on commercial avenues [in Outremont] be reserved for businesses, coffee shops, restaurants and cultural spaces – open to everyone and anyone regardless of their religion.”
Objections to the by-law
Mindy Pollak, the only borough councillor out of the five to vote against the proposed by-law and a Hasidic Jewish woman, objected to Gremaud’s intentions in a phone interview with The Daily. She pointed out how the drafting of the by-law failed to take into account the public’s reservations.
“Only small sections of the street are being regulated. On [Avenue] Bernard, we are talking about 200 or 300 meters.”
“The bylaw project has been badly mismanaged,” she stated. “The borough refused to sit down with people that should have been consulted, people that would have been affected by the bylaw […] during the first public consultation, over 70 per cent of the people who came out were against the by-law project, and [the Outremont council] ignored that.”
Pollak believes that synagogues would actually enhance the economic vitality of surrounding areas. “The best proof that I can give you [is this]: on Avenue Parc, between Avenue Bernard and Avenue Van Horne, the Plateau approved a few new synagogues, [and] there’s businesses that are booming now, new stores have opened up,” Pollak said.
Pollak also pointed out that unlike a number of other boroughs in Montreal, Outremont doesn’t have “Projets particuliers de construction, de modification ou d’occupation d’un immeuble” (PPCMOI) procedures in place, a derogation tool that would allow requests for building permits to be examined on a case-by-case basis, even if zoning laws would normally prohibit the development of certain buildings. This means that if the by-law passes, there would be no way for a new synagogue to be built quickly to service the growing Hasidic community’s needs, except for repealing the law itself.
“The borough refused to sit down with people that should have been consulted, people that would have been affected by the bylaw […]”
Legality of the by-law
Montreal lawyer Julius Grey, who sent a letter to the borough last December threatening legal action if the by-law was adopted, believes that the by-law is not only inconvenient, but also unconstitutional.
“The [Hasidic] community is one of the fastest growing communities [in Outremont]. They often have ten or 15 children per family, and demographic studies show that they might become the majority in Outremont by 2025, 2030,” said Grey in an interview with The Daily.
“[The Hasidim] have an absolute prohibition on taking a vehicle or any other mechanical form of transport on a Saturday, or Shabbat [Jewish high holiday], he continued. “In those circumstances, […] because there are [few places] where you can still build a synagogue [in Outremont], it means […] a 30 to 45 minute walk away from their synagogue, and given the fact that they’re families with small children, given the fact that […] Montreal winters are not made for traipsing around with ten children, given the need to expand, the result is that Outremont is attacking a real and pressing need.”
“In those circumstances, […] because there are [few places] where you can still build a synagogue [in Outremont], it means […] a 30 to 45 minute walk away from their synagogue.”
“Municipalities have the power to legislate, including to restrict where places of worship are to be found,” continued Grey. But, he said they “must provide a reasonably easy, convenient place [of worship, and] cannot legislate in such a way to virtually ban communities.”
If the forthcoming referendum rules in favour of upholding the law, Grey is still prepared to take legal action against the borough.
The date of the upcoming Avenue Bernard referendum is expected to be announced before or during the next council meeting on October 3. Members of the Hasidic community say they will not be the only ones voting to reject the by-law, as many non-Hasidic neighbours have also taken issue with the ruling.
“[Municipalities] must provide a reasonably easy, convenient place [of worship, and] cannot legislate in such a way to virtually ban communities.”
The Daily reached out to three other Outremont councilors who supported the by-law, but they did not respond in time for publication.