Muslim community's hijab event cancelled over security concerns, venue says

A Laval reception hall that abruptly cancelled an event organized by a Muslim community group this past weekend says its decision was a matter of security, and "had nothing to do with the nature of the event."

Montreal Muslim community group wanted to rent a space to celebrate girls' decision to wear hijabs

There was a small police presence outside the office of the Centre Communautaire Musulman de Montreal, which hosted an event Sunday evening celebrating the decision of girls aged nine to 12 to wear the hijab. (Antoni Nerestant/CBC)

A Laval reception hall that abruptly cancelled an event organized by a Muslim community group this past weekend says its decision was a matter of security, and "had nothing to do with the nature of the event."

Terry Christopoulos, sales director at the Chateau Royal, said he received a call on Saturday asking if the reception hall could accommodate an event at the last minute. He checked and saw that there was space available, he said.

Christopoulos said he was bombarded with calls and messages later that day, alerting him that backlash to the event was spreading rapidly among far-right groups on social media.

The Centre Communautaire Musulman de Montreal (CCMM) had sought to rent the space to hold an annual event celebrating young girls' decisions to wear the hijab.

"This had nothing to do with the nature of the event," Christopoulos told CBC News on Monday, a day after the event was set to be held.

"We didn't have enough time to know more about the event, and take the necessary precaution." 

​Event celebrated girls' decision to wear hijabs

For the past two years, the CCMM has rented space at a high school in the city's east end for the event.

The Commission Scolaire de Montréal (CSDM), a French-language school board, had initially agreed to once again rent them the auditorium at Louis-Joseph-Papineau High School on Sunday.

However, a few days before the event was to be held, Le Journal de Montréal newspaper ran a column condemning the school board for allowing the Muslim community group to hold the event at one of its schools.

The article, which ran Thursday under the headline "Abuse of young girls at the CSDM," was shared on several xenophobic Facebook pages in Quebec.

Lise Ravary, the Journal de Montréal columnist who wrote the piece, told CBC News on Monday many people in Quebec are against holding religious ceremonies in publicly funded spaces. 

"A lot of francophones feel that there should be sharp separation of church and state, and that includes holding religious ceremonies in public buildings," she said.

The school board cancelled the rental agreement a day after the article was published, saying on Twitter that it made its decision "in light of information we have received, for security reasons, and in order to protect people and prevent an escalation."

Members of a far-right Facebook group in the province celebrated the event's cancellation.

Reached by CBC News on Monday, CDSM Spokesperson Alain Perron said the school board declined to comment any further.

He said, however, that it bases these types of decisions on "what police tell them."

A spokesperson for Mayor Valérie Plante said the fact that people may feel like they can't gather openly and safely in Montreal was "worrying."

"Freedom of expression and association is fundamental in a democracy. Of course, people have the right to express their opinions, but they also have the right to gather publicly without fear for their safety," Geneviève Jutras said in a brief email to CBC News.

Backlash was 'eye-opening'

Christopoulos said the Chateau Royal never signed a written agreement with the Muslim community centre, but had a verbal agreement that it would try to work something out at the last minute.

Christopoulos said the way things spiralled out of control on social media "was eye-opening."

"We do a ton of events with the Muslim community, but things unfolded so quickly on social media," he said.

Salam Elmenyawi, president of the Muslim Council of Montreal, said the cancellations were "very disappointing."

"It's sad when members of the Muslim community are unable to hold their cultural events," because of an acrimonious atmosphere, Elmenyawi said.

Elmenyawi added that the incident was "very disturbing" in light of the deadly attack at a Quebec City mosque last year. 

"Instead of helping, instead of moving forward, we see that people, they just don't learn," Elmenyawi told CBC News.

Event went ahead Sunday, under police protection

For its part, the CCMM ended up holding the event at its offices in Montreal's Villeray–Saint-Michel–Parc-Extension borough Sunday evening. Police maintained a small presence outside.

A member of the CCMM could not immediately be reached on Monday to comment on the reception hall and school board's justifications for cancelling the event.

Racha of the Centre Communautaire Musulman de Montréal said the event has been held successfully for almost a decade. (Antoni Nerestant/CBC)

Racha, a member of the group who was authorized to speak on its behalf, told CBC News on Sunday that the event has been held successfully for almost a decade. Her family name is being withheld over fears of social media backlash. 

She rejected the idea, put forward in the Journal de Montréal, that the girls involved in the ceremony are forced to wear hijabs 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."

With files from Antoni Nerestant and Jonathan Montpetit