Doubts cast on news report that Montreal mosque asked for women to be kept away from construction site

Quebec's construction commission is looking into allegations published by TVA Nouvelles that a Montreal mosque asked an electrical contractor that women be excluded from a nearby construction site on Fridays, the Muslim day of prayer.

Mosque board member, city's electrical services commission both say story by TVA Nouvelles doesn't hold up

Electrical work is being done outside Ahl-Ill Bait Mosque in Côte-des-Neiges. (Lauren McCallum/CBC)

Quebec's construction commission (CCQ) is looking into questionable allegations that a Montreal mosque asked that female workers be excluded from a nearby construction site on Fridays, the Muslim day of prayer.

According to a report by TVA Nouvelles published Tuesday, the directors of two mosques on de Courtrai Avenue in Côte-des-Neiges asked G-Tek, an electrical contractor carrying out work near the mosque, that women not be visible at the site on Fridays.

The original news report said a clause in the contract for the electrical work backed up that claim.

However, the TVA story has since been changed to say the clause in the contract had to do with accommodating the mosque to keep noise away on Fridays, not women. The revised news report doesn't acknowledge that the story was amended or why.

A subsequent story says the TVA reporter was provided contradictory information by a G-Tek employee. 

The board of directors of the Ahl-Ill Bait Mosque refutes the news report in its entirety, adamant that no request to bar women from the site on Fridays was ever made. The board has hired a lawyer.

The mosque's version of events is backed up by the Commission des services électriques de Montréal (CSEM), the paramunicipal agency that hired G-Tek to carry out the electrical work.

Union officials representing workers on the site believe the request may have come from a neighbour, and not the mosque itself. 

TVA responds

CBC News posed TVA a series of questions about the story, including why an interview with a member of the mosque's board of directors was not included in the initial broadcast, why the story was subsequently changed and whether the media outlet stands by its reporting.

"Did you read the report yesterday on this subject?" asked Véronique Mercier, vice-president of communications for Québecor Média and Groupe TVA, in an email.

"The story is founded. There is a verbal agreement that exists. Several sources, including employees, confirmed it." 

This constituted the entirety of TVA's response.

'Stay calm,' says labour minister

Quebec Labour Minister Dominique Vien asked the CCQ to look into the claim, calling the idea of excluding women from a construction site "unacceptable."

At the National Assembly Wednesday, Vien said she was "troubled" by the allegations when she heard about them, adding that equality between men and women is a fundamental right.

"I'm calling on people to calm down; stay calm, we'll look into the facts."

The CCQ is not carrying out an investigation, according to CCQ President Diane Lemieux, but is verifying the information that's circulating. It's expected to release its findings in the coming days.

Any clause that mandates the exclusion of women from a construction site would contravene the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and Quebec's Act respecting labour standards, Lemieux told Radio-Canada.

What may have happened

G-Tek was hired to bury power lines underground, and some of that work is taking place on the mosque's property, explained the president of CSEM, Serge Boileau.

Boileau said that there was never a clause in the contract stating women weren't allowed to work at the site on Fridays. Rather, CSEM reached an agreement with the mosque that work not be done on mosque property Fridays, to limit the noise on the Muslim day of prayer. That agreement is in the contract.

Boileau said he checked with managers at G-Tek, who told him they hadn't received a request from the mosque that women be kept away Fridays, either.

However, Stéphane Fortin, the president of G-Tek, told Radio-Canada a foreman at the construction site was approached by someone who said he was from the mosque who asked that women not be allowed to work there on Fridays — a request that the foreman complied with on his own.

G-Tek has not responded to a CBC News request for comment.

A slightly different version emerged late Wednesday. The union that represents some of the workers on the site dispatched an official to speak with its members earlier in the day.

The workers told their representative that the request to remove women from the site during prayer time on Fridays came from a neighbour, not the mosque, said Lyne Laperrière, who heads the construction division of Centrale des syndicats démocratiques (CSD).

Laperrière said it appears the request was made to the contractor, who accommodated the request. 

"At no time did workers lose salary. The contractor took it upon himself to move them elsewhere for the duration of prayers," Laperrière said. "Why he listened to a demand from a neighbour, why don't have that answer."   

Hate incited, mosque director says

Moayed Altalibi, a director of the board of Ahl-Ill Bait Mosque, one of the two mosques referenced in the original news report, said he doesn't know where the story comes from, and he was shocked when he heard it.

"Since yesterday, we are receiving a lot of angry emails and messages. People are fuming. [The report] incited hate and derision in the community," Altalibi said.

How can, in this world, here in Montreal, somebody prevent a woman from working?- Ahl-Ill Bait Mosque director Moayed Altalibi

The mosque's board has passed on some of the messages it's received to police, Altalibi said. Montreal police were not immediately able to confirm whether a complaint had been filed.

Altalibi said there is another mosque near Ahl-Ill Bait, but the two mosques do not share a board of directors, nor is electrical work being done outside the other mosque.

He also said he felt as if the TVA reporter wasn't interested in hearing the mosque's side of the story. 

"When the report was broadcast again the second time, I went myself, even though it was a snowstorm and I live a little bit far from the centre," he said. 

"I made a lengthy interview with the same reporter. She did not report any part of it."

The borough mayor of Côte-des-Neiges–Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, former Montreal Gazette journalist Sue Montgomery, says TVA should apologize and retract its story.

With files from Lauren McCallum