In the premier episode of the all-new FTB Podcast, hosts Jason C. McLean and Dawn McSweeney talk about the Outremont by-election and Canadian politics with special guest Niall Ricardo and we feature an interview with NDP candidate Julia Sanchez.
Also: News Roundup, Survey Says (Should Major League Baseball return to Montreal?), Dear FTB, Things You Did Not Know (Maybe) and Predictions!
Julia Sánchez may be a first-time political candidate, but she has years of experience in highly politicized circles, tackling, for the most part, climate change. Now the former Managing Director for the Global Campaign for Climate Action is carrying the NDP banner in the Outremont by-election.
FTB’s Hannah Besseau had a chance to speak with her last week:
The Borough of Outremont recently passed a zoning law banning any new houses of worship from establishing themselves on Laurier and Bernard Avenues. The goal of the law is encourage businesses in the area, particularly around Laurier, Bernard, and Van Horne, and create a public secular space.
The vote was four in favor, one opposed. Mindy Pollack, a member of the borough’s Chasidic community, was the city councilor who voted against the bylaw. She and other members of the borough’s religious Jewish community argue that the new bylaw doesn’t take into account the needs of the community and claim that it isn’t based on any demographic studies.
They demanded that the vote on the bylaw be postponed until demographic studies were conducted with the participation of Outremont’s religious communities. The Borough’s council went and voted on it anyway despite a letter from constitutional lawyer Julius Grey threatening to immediately contest the bylaw before the courts should it pass.
Those against the bylaw argue that it shows a remarkable insensitivity to the religious Jewish community in Outremont. Religious Jews cannot drive automobiles or use public transit on the Sabbath. The ban would allegedly force them to walk 20 to 30 minutes to a house of worship.
Those in favor of the bylaw argue that it will encourage businesses to open and expand in Outremont and provide a safe secular space.
Here are the facts:
The bylaw in question was actually based on a demographic study. But it was a demographic study that’s four years old. The working paper issued by the Borough of Outremont prior to the vote cited a 2011 demographic study of the religious demographics of the area. The Chasidic Community is growing exponentially due to high birth rates, so the numbers in the report would most certainly be out of date.
This same working paper raised concerns that allowing places of worship in certain areas would result in a concentration of them in a given area that would ultimately lead to clashes between religious communities and secular residents and businesses, ultimately deterring the latter. These concerns are not unfounded.
In 2008, for example, a YMCA in Outremont succumbed to pressure from a neighboring Chasidic synagogue that complained because they could see women exercising in outfits that didn’t conform to their sense of modesty. The religious community argued that it was distracting their teenage boys and agreed to foot the $3,500 bill for the YMCA to install frosted windows. Though the Chasidic Community considered the solution a reasonable one, many members of the YMCA begrudged the accommodation and felt that their freedoms were being curtailed for extremist religious sexism.
Places of Worship in Quebec do not pay municipal taxes. According to An Act Respecting Municipal Taxation, property belonging to a religious institution constituted as a legal person and used primarily for public worship is exempt from municipal property and school taxes. They’re also exempt from business taxes if their activities are part of the exercise of public worship or for charitable or religious goals and would have no monetary gain for the institution. That means that any new place of worship wouldn’t bring any revenue and would only benefit the borough in a purely cultural way.
The new bylaw doesn’t affect existing places of worship, only new ones.
When laws allegedly infringing on religious freedoms go before the courts, religious groups often win. Cases are generally argued on the basis of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees freedom of religion and equality before the law.
The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled on everything from a Sikh’s obligation to wear a ceremonial dagger and turban, to the Jewish obligation on Sukkot to set up a small outdoor shack (called a Sukkah) for meals, to rants against LGBT people made by people claiming to be good Christians.
In most cases, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the religious groups or individuals, so it’s highly likely a constitutional challenge to the bylaw would succeed. All Outremont’s religious Jewish community would have to argue is that the ban on using any mode of transportation on the Sabbath is associated with their religion and that the petitioners’ belief in this practice is sincere. From there, it’s a matter of arguing that the bylaw interferes with their right to practice their faith.
It would then be up to the Borough to prove that the bylaw is both important and necessary. The Borough would also have to argue that the bylaw’s limit on freedom of religion is rationally connected to its purpose, encroaches on this freedom as little as possible, and strikes a fair balance between the negative effect of the bylaw and its’ benefits. This test, established by the Supreme Court of Canada in R. v. Oakes,  1 S.C.R. 103 is used to gauge the constitutionality – as per Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms – of any legislation brought before the courts.
There are no specific religious laws in Judaism regarding the location of a synagogue. However, since most religious Jews don’t believe in using any form of motorized transportation on the Sabbath, it would be pointless to establish one that wasn’t within walking distance of its congregants. Conversely it should be noted that many religious communities on the Island of Montreal have successfully established houses of worship in residential areas and even parks. The Beth Zion Congregation in Cote-Saint-Luc for example was started in the basement of one of its members and was eventually moved to a park in order to allow for potential expansion.
Having said all that is the new bylaw discriminatory?
It clearly discriminates not just against Chasidic Jews, but against every religious community in Outremont.
Was the bylaw passed without a proper up-to-date demographic study of the borough?
Alex Tyrrell is the new leader of the Quebec Green Party. He’s also a candidate in today’s provincial by-election in Outremont, running against Quebec Liberal leader Philippe Couillard. While Couillard had initially agreed to debate him, the PLQ boss has since backed out.
“The small parties have tougher questions to ask than the big parties do,” Tyrrell theorized about Couillard’s change of heart in a phone interview, “it would be a lot easier for him to debate Pauline Marois or Francois Legeault than the leader of the Green Party or candidates from Option Nationale or Quebec Solidaire.”
Tyrrell would have pressed Couillard on Anticosti Island and the fracking agreement former Liberal leader Jean Charest signed with the private sector, where residents only get 3% of the royalties (known in some circles as “the theft of the century”). While Premier Pauline Marois had campaigned against hydraulic fracturing for shale gas, she has done an about face since being elected simply by changing the wording. Apparently “oil shale” is okay for her, or fine enough that she would have no reason to attack Couillard on the issue.
Tyrrell also thinks public transit is extremely important. The Greens haven’t had their policy convention yet (Tyrrell was only elected leader a few months ago), but when they do, Tyrrell will be arguing (as he is in Outremont) for free public transit.
“Free transit is really an incentive that will be matched with a major expansion of the public transit networks across the province,” he said, “it’s also a social justice issue. We think it’s completely unfair that people have to pay $77 per month if they’re not a student for an STM pass and more if they come farther away. It’s counter-intuitive.”
Tyrrell thinks the incentive approach is much better than some heavy car tax. He feels that making public transit a province-wide priority and increasing funding to this shared provincial/municipal responsibility will achieve both social justice and environmental goals without penalizing workers who live far from public transit and need their cars.
“Even if some people live far from major cities,” he argues, “if we reduce the number of cars in the cities, it will reduce climate change.”
The riding he hopes to win tonight is not only a transit hub, it has been Liberal for quite some time. While Tyrrell admits that residents there have been represented by a fair share of cabinet ministers, it doesn’t mean the Liberals have been listening to what they want.
“For the longest time, they’ve been taken for granted by the Liberal Party,” he says of Outremont electors, “there’s a pattern of the Liberal candidates not showing up for debates and not being involved in the riding.”
Tyrrell would like to change that and has been going door-to-door in Outremont to get that message out, despite having to split his time between Outremont and leading the party. He’s found that people there are disappointed that, while the Greens and other smaller parties are running, the major parties (PQ and CAQ) are treating it like a foregone conclusion that Couillard will win.
“The feeling I’m getting,” he recounts, “is that the people are disappointed that the other parties aren’t running and that the by-election is being abused not only by the Liberals but by the other parties as well who are refusing to participate. I think they’re not very happy about being taken for granted.”