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Outremont: Where Intolerance Never Sleeps

Mike Cohen

There is never a dull moment in the Montreal borough of Outremont, home to Quebec’s largest Hasidic community and recognized – rightly so – as a place where acts of intolerance are common place.

For example, last week’s incident of swastikas being scrawled in the snow comes only a few months after a bylaw prohibiting new places of worship on one of Outremont’s main streets was upheld in a referendum.  The bylaw forbids any new temples of worship (of any religious denomination) from opening on the street. But the ultra-Orthodox Jewish population, naturally, felt targeted.

Outremont and its growing Hasidic community, representing about 20 per cent of the population,  seem to be in a perpetual state of conflict. In 1999, following the opening of a synagogue on Van Horne Avenue, Outremont moved to prohibit any new religious buildings on that street. In 2001, the Hasidim won a court case against the borough after it banned them from erecting an eruv (a symbolic string boundary that allows orthodox Jews to perform tasks that would otherwise be off limits on the Sabbath).

In 2013, a court ruled in favour of a synagogue that Outremont was trying to shut down over a zoning violation. A year later, the borough proposed restricting limits on where Hasidic families could erect sukkahs. The council eventually backed down following complaints that religious freedom was being violated. Leading the charge was Mindy Pollak, elected to council in 2013, becoming the first ultra-Orthodox Jew to do so in Outremont.

In 1991, filmmaker Garry Beitel released the documentary Bonjour! Shalom! (page does not exist) where he explores the relationship between Hasidic Jews in Outremont  and their predominantly French-Québécois neighbours.  I have spoken to Beitel about the fact that, here we are some 26 years later, and not much has changed.

B’nai Brith Canada’s Quebec office keeps close tabs on Outremont, with board member Sharon Freedman paying particularly close attention to what is going on.

“I grew up on Jeanne Mance knowing many Hasidim and their customs and ways,” says Freedman. “I became a Member of the Liberal Riding Association of Outremont and as such I became even closer to Hasidic community. There are many issues in this community, but the Mayor and her council are hardcore French and they really do not understand this community.

“The councillors  speak only French  and refuse any English. Mindy Pollak is the only opposition member, so nothing ever gets blocked. I am not saying the Hasidim are always right, but with the right attitude and sincere attempt to make things more palatable for both sides will anything ever change? Not with the current mayor. If my French were better, I would run there.”

As for last week’s incident involving swastikas on windshields, the fact that it happened a week after the terrorist act at a Quebec City mosque already has some people on edge. Very quickly though, the neighbourhood  countered the “message of hate,” as one community leader called it, with messages of love, removing the snow swastikas and placing hearts in their stead.

Mayer Feig, a leader of the Outremont Hasidic community, was swamped with media calls after he posted the swastika in the snow on his Facebook page.  He commented that he wasn’t shocked by the news, noting that synagogues, kosher bakeries and even election campaign posters have been recently vandalized with the Nazi party emblem.

“They do it for one reason: just to show you that there’s still people out there that hate you, and to make you feel unwanted in this place,” Feig said.

Montreal police transferred the file to their hate crimes department.

Outremont resident Sarah Dorner took to Twitter to express her concern over the swastikas. “It was very disappointing because this is our community,” she said. “It’s where we’re raising our children.”

Regarding the hearts in the snow,  Dorner said it’s important, “For our friends who are targeted by messages of hate, that we remind them that we care about them, and that we’re there. We got their back. My seven-year-old’s class presentation was on her favourite place in Outremont. She chose her home because of her nice Hasidic neighbours who give us cakes and candies. She brought a cat puppet that their six-year-old boy loves to borrow from our house to scare his older sisters for fun. My daughter gets a kick out of his mischief.”

Mike Cohen is B’nai Brith Canada’s Quebec news bureau chief, a veteran writer and municipal politician. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @mikecohencsl