Ban on new places of worship upheld in Outremont
Outremont’s controversial bylaw prohibiting new places of worship on one of its major commercial arteries, Bernard Avenue, is now in effect following a Nov. 20 referendum.
The borough announced within three hours of the polls’ closing at 8 p.m. that the Yes side had carried the day with 1,561 votes, versus 1,202 for the No side. Ten ballots were rejected.
There were 4,452 eligible voters, meaning the turnout was 60.2 per cent.
The chassidic community had vowed to come out in full force to defeat the bylaw, saying it felt targeted by the measure and that it affects them more than any other religious group.
However, those in favour of the bylaw also mobilized and conducted an active campaign, complete with flyers and door-knocking.
The council’s rationale for the bylaw is that restricting places of worship will revitalize economic activity, which has been suffering. The Chassidim say no independent study was carried out to support that assumption.
The bylaw applies to all religions, but chassidic leaders say their community, composed of various sects, is the only growing religious group in the area.
According to 2011 statistics, 19 per cent of Outremont’s population of 24,000 is Jewish, and anecdotally that proportion would appear to have increased in the past five years.
The bylaw was introduced last December and approved by all of the council, except Mindy Pollak, who is a member of the chassidic community.
In the summer of 2015, the council issued a permit for the construction of a new chassidic synagogue on Bernard, which would be the second on that street, known for its fine architecture, shops and restaurants.
Pollak posted her regret over the referendum results on Facebook. She believes the ban “directly violates the rights and freedoms” of religion and will “exacerbate social tensions… Other solutions could be more effective and should have been explored.”
Pollak, a member of Projet Montréal, the opposition party at Montreal city hall, also criticized the “silence” of Mayor Denis Coderre on this issue.
After the bylaw’s first adoption, some chassidic leaders hired prominent civil rights lawyer Julius Grey, who sent a letter to council warning that if the bylaw was implemented, his clients would go to court to fight it as unconstitutional. The complainants charge that the bylaw is discriminatory.
The bylaw also placed a moratorium on additional places of worship on another major commercial artery, Laurier Avenue. That went into effect in September after only a handful of people – far short of the minimum – signed a registry requesting a referendum. The Chassidim were less concerned with that street because, unlike Bernard, it does not pass through the heart of their neighbourhood.
A ban on more places of worship on a third commercial artery, Van Horne Avenue, has been in force since 1999.
The council has proposed that new places of worship be restricted to a zone in the northeast corner of the borough, but the Chassidim say that is not acceptable because it is too far from where most of them live and may be unsafe because it borders a railway line.
Pollak said that with the passage of the bylaw, effectively no new synagogues will be able to open in Outremont, because almost all other areas are zoned for residential use only. Nowhere else in Canada are synagogues banned, she added.
The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs tweeted: “Very disappointed by the results of the Outremont referendum on places of worship. Officials need to find a better solution.”
Despite her disappointment, Pollak tweeted: “Was wonderful to see the support of dozens of non-chassidic neighbours selflessly volunteering for the No side. Merci beaucoup!”
Daniel Major, who led the Yes campaign, said his concern was solely with helping businesses flourish on Bernard and preserving its character. He noted that there are other zoning restrictions on the street, such as on bars and service stations.
On its Facebook page, Les residents d’outremont pour une avenue Bernard commerciale congratulated the No side for a “hard-fought campaign. What an incredible victory for democracy – as a city, as a community, we should be proud.”
Both the No and Yes sides actively campaigned in the lead-up to the Outremont referendum.