Fearing backlash from Quebec's far-right, venues cancel Muslim event celebrating hijab

A Muslim community group in Montreal was forced to move an event twice in two days after both venues faced pressure from far-right groups.

School board, reception hall abruptly backed out of contracts after social media outcry

Racha, a spokesperson for the Centre Communautaire Musulman de Montréal, said the event is held annually to celebrate the decision of young girls to wear the hijab. (Antoni Nerestant/CBC)

A Muslim community group in Montreal was forced to move an event twice in two days after both venues faced pressure from far-right groups. 

For the past two years, the Centre Communautaire Musulman de Montreal (CCMM) has rented an auditorium in an east-end high school, where it has held an annual event that celebrates the decision of girls aged nine to 12 to wear the hijab.

The Commission Scolaire de Montréal — a French-language school board known by its acronym CSDM — had agreed this year to, once again, rent them the auditorium at Louis-Joseph-Papineau High School. The event was to take place Sunday. 

But on Thursday, the Journal de Montréal ran a column by Lise Ravary under the headline "Abuse of young girls at the CSDM." It was critical of the school board's decision to let the Muslim group use the auditorium. 

Ravary did not call the community centre seeking comment, said Racha, a member of the community centre authorized to speak on its behalf. CBC Montreal has agreed to withhold her family name as she fears backlash on social media

The column was circulated on openly xenophobic Facebook sites, including one which translates as, "No to Quebecphobia and racism toward Quebecers."

There was a small police presence Sunday outside the Centre Communautaire Musulman de Montreal after an event prompted backlash online. (Antoni Nerestant/CBC)

On Friday, the school board sent an email to the CCMM informing them the rental contract was being cancelled.

The email, which the CCMM shared with CBC Montreal, says the school board "was informed that protests are highly likely and the security of people could be compromised."

Members of the "Quebecphobia" Facebook group claimed credit for the school board's decision. The school board did not return multiple requests for comment on Sunday. 

A second cancellation 

In the meantime, the Muslim community centre secured a room for Sunday's event at the Chateau Royal, a reception hall in Laval.

News of the change in location was also circulated on Facebook, this time by members of a group called Revolution PTRK, a breakaway faction of La Meute, the largest far-right group in the province.

They referred to the event as a "pedophile ceremony" and encouraged followers to contact Chateau Royal.

A spokesperson for the Muslim community centre said Chateau Royal informed them Saturday night, less than 24 hours before the event, that they too were cancelling the rental agreement.

A member of the far-right group Revolution PTRK described the event as a 'pedophile ceremony.' A Laval reception hall cancelled the event after outcry from the group. (Facebook)

"They told us they were getting negative reviews and attention on Facebook. They were worried about their reputation," said Racha.

Chateau Royal did not respond Sunday to a request for comment.  

A member of Revolution PTRK celebrated the reception hall's decision. "A big thank you to them," the message said.

'Quite frankly, no one cares'

The CCMM decided, in the end, to hold the event Sunday evening at their offices in the borough of Villeray–Saint-Michel–Parc-Extension. There was a small police presence outside.

In the cramped space, dozens of community members turned out to watch songs, dances and a play performed by young girls who have decided to wear the hijab in recent months. Both boys and girls took part in the play.

Yasmina Bahsoul, 13, participated in the ceremony last year and said the decision to wear the veil was her own.

"I don't care about the looks of others," she added.

The event has been held annually for close to a decade, and is one of the high points of the community centre's social calendar, said Racha. The children spend three months practising their routines.

She rejected the characterization of the event in the Journal de Montréal, which suggested the girls were being forced to wear the hijab for the rest of their lives.

"Quite frankly, no one cares," Racha said. "It's like when you baptize a child. It's a beautiful ceremony, but you don't say the child will be forced to do something for the rest of their life."

She also took issue with the language used by the Journal de Montréal, including the use of the term "abuse" in the headline.

"Look how lightly the term of abuse is being used in this situation," Racha said. 

"Oppression is a serious issue. We're talking about clothing here."

With files from Antoni Nerestant