A referendum vote in favour of banning new houses of worship on one of Montreal's most upscale streets has inflamed tensions with the district's community of Hasidic Jews, fuelling a divisive debate over religious minorities and the sharing of public space.
In a vote that coincides with heightened sensitivity across the continent about the treatment of minorities, residents in the borough of Outremont voted 56 per cent in favour on Sunday of upholding a zoning ban on new temples on Bernard Avenue, one of the well-to-do district's main commercial arteries.
While the bylaw does not identify a specific religion, it coincides with the rapid expansion of the local Hasidic community, a largely insular, ultra-orthodox group that has grown to about 25 per cent of the population.
Some in the Hasidic community see the vote as push-back against its members. With zoning bans in place on residential streets and other commercial areas in Outremont, Bernard was the last place in the developed part of the borough available to open a synagogue.
"They want to squeeze us out," said Mayer Feig, a community activist. "We feel there is an agenda at city council. Anything they can do to hurt the interest of our community, they'll do it."
The referendum vote is the latest iteration of long-standing strains between the Hasidic Jewish community and the majority in Outremont, home to some of the leading political and cultural figures of Quebec (the borough recently made waves when it renamed Vimy Park after the late premier Jacques Parizeau, a long-time resident). Below the surface, the debate is over the notion of belonging and the stresses of co-habitation in the central Montreal borough of 25,000, where black-garbed Hasidic men are a visible presence. The Hasidic community, bound by deep religious tenets, mostly avoids mixing with those outside its faith.
The mayor of Outremont, Marie Cinq-Mars, says the zoning bylaw was not intended to single out the Hasidim, whose various sects already operate four synagogues in the borough, including one on Bernard.
"Our commercial avenues needed help, they needed to be revitalized," she said in an interview on Monday. "We felt that to have no new houses of worship – regardless of the religious confession – was a good idea so that these streets had continuous stretch of commercial activity to draw people."
Ms. Cinq-Mars defended the referendum as a democratic initiative. "The citizens decided," she said.
Debate over stopping new religious gathering spots began after a Hasidic group obtained a permit for a new synagogue across the street from a string of chic restaurants on Bernard.
Martin Laroche, who works behind the counter at a popular bakery on the street, said he voted "Yes" in the referendum to uphold the zoning restriction. But he insisted it was not a meant to exclude Hasidim, who are his neighbours.
"This was about sharing public space. The [Hasidic] community is not very open. I'm not criticizing it, but it's a fact," said Mr. Laroche, 28. "There are already a lot of religious sites here. We needed a balance. It was a matter of neighbourhood life."
Still, a constitutional expert says the bylaw could expose the borough to a legal battle. While municipalities are empowered to limit places of worship through zoning, they must provide a "reasonable" alternative for religious groups, says lawyer Julius Grey, who has been consulted on the file by some members of the Hasidic community.
"If freedom of religion is involved, and I think it may well be, then the referendum is no obstacle to a challenge in court," he said.
Mayor Cinq-Mars says the borough is ready to offer land for future synagogues and other temples in a corner of the borough that is now an industrial zone by a set of railway tracks. However, the idea was criticized for evoking the idea of creating a ghetto; and the area is out of the way, since observant Jews do not drive on the Sabbath. The limit could be subject to a Charter of Rights challenge.
Mr. Grey says the case points to wider conflicts in Quebec; he is involved in similar disputes in other municipalities over the opening of new mosques or Islamic centres. "There is a real edge to the conflict between extreme secularism, which Quebeckers are now espousing, and minorities. This is the underlying problem," Mr. Grey said.
Mindy Pollak, an Outremont councillor who is Hasidic, says the borough provided no studies to support the notion that houses of worship harm stores and businesses. Other factors such as online shopping could also play a role.
"There is no reason that businesses and houses of worship can't co-exist," she said.
She said she had proposed alternatives to the outright ban, including maintaining ground-floor storefronts on Bernard and limiting houses of worship to the second floor, but the proposals fell on deaf ears.
"The borough gave citizens a terrible choice, and the cost of the referendum is high – it's the cost of social harmony," she said. "Here we are today with a population more divided than ever. Where do we go from here?"