On Sunday, November 20, Outremont residents voted to uphold a bylaw banning the construction of new houses of worship on Bernard by a vote of 1,561 to 1,202.
The legislation, introduced last year, would prohibit the construction of houses of worship on Bernard and Laurier, ostensibly banning religious construction throughout the entire borough, as a similar ban already applies to residential streets in Outremont and on Van Horne.
However, the bylaw remains controversial, because while the ban applies to all religious denominations, the referendum results have left Outremont’s Hasidic community feeling targeted: currently comprising 25 per cent of the borough’s population, Outremont’s Hasidic community is the borough’s largest growing religious group and expected to be Outremont’s largest demographic by 2030.
As Laurier did not receive the minimum number of signatures in its public registry to enforce a referendum, Bernard remained the last possible area where a place of worship could be built.
Outremont only has four synagogues with a combined capacity of four hundred: the ban would effectively force Hasidic Jews to travel outside of the borough by foot in order to attend Synagogue, as Jewish religious law prohibits any form of mechanical travel on the Sabbath, including, but not limited to, driving a car, taking the bus, or riding the subway.
Though borough councilors claim that the ban was designed to protect Bernard’s commercial viability, Outremont councilor Mindy Pollak, the only councilor to vote against the ban, says that this logic does not stand up under scrutiny.
In a September interview with The Daily, Pollak spoke about the example of Parc, where “the Plateau approved a few new synagogues, [and] there’s businesses that are booming now, new stores have opened up.”
Arno Pedram, a U2 student at McGill and a volunteer for the ‘No’ vote against the ban, campaigned prior to the referendum in an effort to raise support for overturning the bylaw.
He feels that the ‘Yes’ campaign “had spread […] a lot of misinformation about what was happening” by focusing on the commercial aspects of the bylaw, rather than the religious implications. He accredits the success of the ‘Yes’ campaign to “huge amounts of donations,” and early mobilization.
Pedram told The Daily that the ‘No’ campaign only got off the ground a week prior to the referendum, saying “the lateness […] is due in part to the fact that the Hasidic community did not want to seem aggressive.”
“[The ‘Yes’ campaign] had spread […] a lot of misinformation about what was happening.”
Julius Grey, a Montreal lawyer who opposes the bylaw, believes there are sufficient grounds to pursue legal action, telling CTV that “the majority vote is of no importance as long as there is a violation of the Charter, so what one would have to show is that there is a practical impediment to them worshipping.”
While similar bans exist in other boroughs throughout the city, Outremont does not have “Projets particuliers de construction, de modification ou d’occupation d’un immeuble” laws in place, which would allow the borough to issue building permits on a case-by-case basis, even if a general bylaw prevents the construction of places of worships. As a result, members of the Hasidic community are left with little alternative but to go to court.
“The majority vote is of no importance as long as there is a violation of the Charter, so what one would have to show is that there is a practical impediment to them worshipping.”
However, despite the threat of forthcoming legal action, Hasidic community leader, Abraham Ekstein, seeks compromise that will leave all parties satisfied, telling The Daily: “We hope to build bridges with the community around us to […] find a way to live together.”