“Smart City” and places of worship in Outremont

Outremont City Hall: a smart city?
Photo: Axel Drainville
In the era of “smart city”, some 260 citizens participated, on December 1st, in a public consultation in the borough of Outremont, on a draft regulation that would prohibit the opening of new places of worship on Bernard and Laurier avenues. My professional activities have prevented me from attending, but here’s the gist of a letter that I sent to the Borough Council, that day:

▸ English translation by courtesy of Outremont Hassid

“Some citizens of our district believe, rightly, that it is a shame to transform public places (such as the restaurant Mère poule or Rôtisserie Fusée) into “closed” places since its reserved to one community. Rue Bernard, they say, should retain its commercial vocation. I can understand this point of view.

Personally, I disagree, because the expansion of the Hasidic Jewish community appears to me as an inescapable reality that cannot be ignored. In essence, this community needs places of religious and cultural practice. If we knowingly prevent this, that means we barely tolerate its existence by denying space for their natural growth.

In this case, we need clear about the real debate: Has the Hasidic Jewish community, over the time, become undesirable in Montreal and Outremont? If so, why? What danger does it pose to the population? Is it terrorist inclinations? Is it behavior that’s a serious source of social unrest that needs urgent correction? How exactly? And how is the borough dealing with the long-term problem of complex coexistence? By stepping up its efforts to marginalize or by improving communication that may lead to better integration?

By confining the worship places to the north of Van Horne, and pushing the religious community far from ordinary life, so we don’t see them, in my opinion, will in the long term only hamper any possibility of harmonious integration of the new generations. I find it really sad, especially since I have very good relations with several families of Hasidic neighbors with whom I of course sometimes exchange recipes, neighborly services and, dare I say, frequent tokens of friendship.

That said, this whole issue could of actually been put on the table, expressed, discussed and negotiated in a manner acceptable to all. Instead, your administration deliberately ignited a powder-keg by first allowing the transformation of a locale on Bernard this summer, and then concocting this plan in secret which I understand was hidden from one of the councilors, and now you are submitting it to a public consultation which will inevitably generate a lot of mistrust, resentment, frustration on both sides.

Rather than address the issue rigorously, advancing cautiously, while preserving peace and social harmony, this ill-crafted public consultation will advance a bit more this confrontational mindset that prevails in Outremont for many years now. It’s really sad, and forgive me tell you, I find that it rounds-off the dismal administrative and political failure on this issue, which can be attributed to the administrations of the last twenty years, including yours.”

Outremont, a “smart city”?

Clearly, to the extent that it applies to all places of worship, this draft regulation does not appear to me legally discriminatory. But the problem is elsewhere, mainly in poor communication that exists between the administration of Outremont, its political staff with citizens in general and with the Hasidic community in particular.

Before coming up with a restrictive bylaw project which is evidently causing more humiliation to most Jewish citizens of the neighborhood, it would have been much “smarter” to set up a consultation group, with representative that takes the time to debate calmly problems raised repeatedly. Thus, all parties could have raised its objections to the other and it legitimate needs. With a little goodwill on both sides, it would certainly reached an agreement, and thus avoided the outcry at the preliminary public consultation.

Flexing muscles, playing the card of identity populism, and thus reinforcing the prejudices of each other will only strengthen polarized positions. Hell, it’s always the “others”, isn’t it? Its about time the concept of “smart city” landed in Outremont. And I’m not talking technology here, but about culture of “living together”. In this district as throughout the planet, the future is uncertain like what the weather will be next month.

▸ Related: audio recording of the Borough Council of November 16th.

How to make waves without even trying

sukka-rue-hutchisonA public consultation on the issue of sukkahs took place in Outremont tonight and I’m still trying to sort out my feelings. I’m going to write down some of what I heard and said — though not all, as being forcibly ejected from the room leaves a few gaps in my knowledge. Though no worries, I think the security guard was more flustered than I was. 🙂

The consultation took place in a large room of the Outremont Intergenerational Community Center. Hasidic Jews showed up in large numbers, at least 30-50 men and women, as well as handfuls of teenage boys and girls. Some of them were my neighbours with whom I have cordial relations. There was also a significant number of non-Hasidic residents of Outremont, as well as some from nearby boroughs. The broad majority of attendees seemed to be in favour of tolerance and flexible regulations — the “Seven days before the holiday and seven days after” option that gives Jewish families some leeway which is not perfect but at least acceptable.

Overall, it is clear that calls for equality and tolerance dominated the debate, both in number of people who spoke up as well as applause. The arguments from this camp felt morally stronger, though this of course is a subjective point of view not shared by all. At the end of the day, it is our prejudices, fueled by fears and insecurities, that determines how much of the “other’s” perspective we are ready to receive. It is not easy to learn, look or listen openly. You must enlarge your horizons by putting yourself in each other’s shoes but few people make a significant effort to do this.

At least a dozen people spoke up voicing the opposing point of view, supporting Mrs. Forget’s proposal of allowing “three days before and three days after” for the erecting and dismantling of the sukkah. The issue that seemed to most concern these speakers was the supposed embarrassment that the sukkahs caused. They were not pleasing to the eye (too rudimentary, not cosmetically beautiful, ugly) and sometimes they also encroached on their privacy — in large buildings where balconies touch, for example. It was also insisted that the sukkahs presented a fire hazard. Some statements included the following:

“We pay dearly to live in Outremont and its beautiful view.” — “When it’s only three or four families it’s not the same.” [ie, easier to tolerate] — “[As for the sukkahs] I do not want to see them!”

Some counter arguments were that these perspectives are highly subjective and cannot be translated into law, others pointed out that the fears (of fire, for example) were simply not based on fact.

The issue of privacy in large buildings, however, deserves some attention here. It is not debatable that the housing particularities of the larger buildings of Outremont do not always lend themselves to constant discretion. Sukkahs on the front or back balcony can feel invasive. But shouldn’t we be able to talk calmly with the sincere desire to find solutions rather than confrontation? Unfortunately, the level of distrust is so high that dialogue is not easy.

But we must continue to change perceptions, consider options, and make the necessary adjustments. Obviously, it is not four (or three or seven) days of more or less that will solve the problem. But by adopting a punitive regulation, Outremont would just increase the radius of this vicious circle. “You harmed me? Fine, I’ll hurt you back!

Several interventions were of a very high standard. Magda Popeanu, councilor for Côte des Neiges spoke on how the bylaw allocating “seven days before, seven days after” functions perfectly in her district where soukkas pose no problems. Rabbi David Cohen from NDG delivered a beautiful testimony of marked moral rigor and dignity, recalling fundamental constitutional issues and invited Outremont citizens to act with heart and compassion.

When my time came, everything had been said. Rather than follow my prepared notes, I filed a petition with 442 signatures, collected in five days by the Friends of Hutchison. I myself helped circulate the petition briefly last Sunday, collecting eight of these signatures in 45 minutes. It convinced me that this accommodation was “reasonable” and that it could easily garner the support of a large number of ordinary citizens in the area. In the end, it is much more socially acceptable than “three days before, three days after,” deemed discriminatory and unnecessarily coercive by the entire Jewish population and a significant number of non-Jews. The petition, which is not complete, supports the original proposal of “seven days before, seven days after.”

I was ready to discuss the points as they are presented in the digital version of this petition. After three to four minutes, however, I was asked to conclude (I must be boring!). I tried to do this by explaining that there is an opportunity here to change the dynamics and foster genuine dialogue among all communities.

But behind me there was very loud grumbling. I gestured to them and, naively, said that my “message of hope” was also addressed to “my fellow citizens who do not like the Hassidim.” Well, that was too much. The whole group of “three days before, three days after” began to boo me. An old man in the front row turned and, furious, accused me of calling him an anti-Semite! It was not true, of course, but who cares?

In any case, the Mayor was also furious and she called to the security guard. My time at the mic – and in the room! – was up. The guard escorted me out of the room, what I did with a smile because sometimes it is better to laugh than cry.


Public Consultation: Freedom and Social Peace need you!

Événement FacebookA very important public consultation is scheduled for October 29th. The Outremont borough council is proposing a modification to an existing bylaw that might affect every Jewish family. It would restrict the right to build sukkots on private balconies, front yards, and back gardens to a very short and unflexible number of days. (more on this in the previous post).

Friends of Hutchison Street, an informal intercultural group, which I have belonged to for about a year, met on Tuesday evening and I participated in this discussion. Here’s the summary that I can make (which only commits me):

  • We understand that the Borough of Outremont is addressing this issue at the municipal level, to avoid possible nuisance or deal with security issues.
  • However we do not understand the rationale behind the council’s proposal to modify the existing by-law, which at least gives leeway to every family to abide by it, by imposing an equivalent period of 15 days with specific start and end dates that would provide less leeway.
  • This would make it very difficult or impossible for many people to respect the by-law. Such a regulation would be too restrictive and inevitably lead to higher rates of non-compliance.
  • Targeted communities would be entitled to contest it as much as they can as well as moderate citizens that support them.
  • We believe that the Council should support the motion originally drafted by the administration which restricted this period to 24 days (7 days before and 7 days after the holiday of Sukkot), as in the bordering zone of Côte-Des-Neiges-NDG.
  • In Plateau Mont-Royal, Jewish families can put up and dismantle their sukkas without any time restriction – just as mainstream Quebekers put up their flags for the Fete nationale, pumpkins for Halloween and Christmas decorations.
  • We are not expecting all the citizens of Outremont to be comfortable with making progressive changes, although if it would certainly be appreciated, but we are proposing a by-law similar to that of CDN/NDG. It has worked in the CDN/NDG borough and we are willing to work with the citizens of Outremont so that it is accepted by all communities.

We call therefore the residents of the borough of Outremont and bordering zones of Côte-Des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, Villeray-St-Michel-Parc-Extension, Plateau-Mont-Royal, Rosemont-La Petite-Patrie and Ville-Marie to make an effort next Wednesday. We warmly invite them to take part in the consultation, to listen to arguments on both sides, and to support us if they think our cause is just.

We certainly do not want to start a new intercommunal battle between Outremont citizens. On the contrary, we want to work together, in mutual respect and for the common good, so that this battle does not happen.


Public Consultation in Outremont: Peace or Intolerance?

A sukka at the U.S. Embassy in Tel AvivWith his typical verve, the smiling Pierre Lacerte calls on his blog readers to mobilize on October 29 at the Outremont public consultation to discuss the proposed change to the zoning bylaw regarding sukkas. These temporary religious huts are erected each year in our neighbourhood (and others) during the festival of Sukkot. I took the initiative to submit this comment on Lacerte’s blog and I call on all Outremonters and Montrealers who oppose the intolerant attitude of Mr. Lacerte to do the same.

Mr. Lacerte (slightly less contemptuous than “Pollack”!), you may be a good writer but you’re an even more incorrigible sophist who puts his talents to a dubious cause.

  1. Your choice of sukkot photographs is suspiciously curated. For example, you did not photograph my neighbour’s sukkot nor others equally well put together and maintained, such that one can easily find throughout neighbourhoods in Montreal, Jerusalem or Paris.
  2. Nobody (not even Mindy Pollak!) wants to propose regulations that put the public or the environment at risk. Yet the sole incident you can find to typify the supposed danger created by sukkahs is a fire that happened across the street from my house last January which was caused by a candle. Written, of course, in the conditional (which suits your yellow journalism well) as it had nothing to do with the holiday of Sukkot.

I would think that a journalism based less on hatred and more on reason would have led you to discuss the other fire last winter in Montreal. “The Christmas tree was too close to the fireplace,” the fireman said. Perhaps they should have instead bought something that was, to quote you, “lego-style made of plastic, light, easy to assemble, rot-resistant, reusable forever, etc.” Can you hardly imagine an atheist, let alone a practicing Christian, buying something so horrid? 🙂

You reserve for yourself alone the right to declare whether something is beautiful or ugly. No wonder it is hard for you to understand somebody like Mindy Pollak. Your ethnocentric, intolerant and mob mentality would easily find somebody like her difficult to fathom.

I would like to draw your attention to the question posed by my wife at the last borough council. She asked where is the injury and harm posed by the sukkahs in Outremont. I added that there is no regulation or bylaw against them in the Plateau, while in NDG sukkahs have a period of grace of 7 days before and after the holiday (see PDF).

May I remind you the context for the consultation of October 29? Contrary to your propaganda, Mindy Pollak is not responsible for filing the notice of motion out of a kind of revenge. Rather, she proposed the change to address the fact that the current bylaw is not enforceable (“15 days” but without specific before and after parameters). The motion she filed is a sensible one, echoing the approach of Côtes-des-Neiges rather than the Plateau. That this motion is acceptable to the community was evident in the testimony given at borough council.

The adoption of this motion would, I believe, reflect a broad consensus and save us from another skirmish. This is in contrast to the regulations proposed by Councilor Céline Forget, whose “3 days before and 3 days after” is simply petty. It is yet another slap to the Hasidic community. One wonders if her long term goal isn’t to have them leave “her” borough entirely.

You can count on me, Mr Lacerte, and I am sure many other residents both Hasidic and non-Hasidic, to denounce this latest intolerant drivel that, true to form, stops just shy of revealing its true ugliness. If it succeeds, Outremont will surely go down in history as Montreal’s most intolerant borough. Is this something you look forward to, Mr Lacerte? Is this what you will be harassing us with the next time you go door to door campaigning for yourself?