Montreal councillors reject motion urging police to allow religious symbols

Councillors voted Tuesday 19-32 against the motion, debated on the same day Mayor Valérie Plante testified at Quebec's Bill 21 hearings.

Coun. Marvin Rotrand accused of adding 'fuel to the fire' amid debate over secularism legislation

Coun. Marvin Rotrand wanted Montreal police to follow the lead of New York City and other jurisdictions, which have allowed officers to wear religious symbols. (Mary Altaffer/Associated Press)

City councillors have voted down a motion that would have urged Montreal police to allow officers to wear religious symbols on the job.

Councillors voted Tuesday 32-19 against the motion, debated on the same day Mayor Valérie Plante testified at Quebec's Bill 21 hearings.

Coun. Marvin Rotrand, who represents the district of Snowdon, asked that city council advise the SPVM to "revise its uniform policies so as to allow qualified candidates to serve wearing hijabs, turbans, kippas and other religious coverings."

Rosannie Filato, a member of Plante's executive committee, echoed the mayor's earlier comments that the proposal didn't contribute to the debate around Bill 21 and would merely add "fuel to the fire."

Members of Projet Montréal voted against the motion.

Rotrand, a longtime councillor, has for years been pressing Montreal police to adopt a more open stance toward minorities.

"I think it's important to have the debate," Rotrand said in an interview prior to the vote. "Montreal is where the minorities are in Quebec. It's here where the changes have to come from." 
Edmonton police is among the cities to allow female Muslim officers to wear a hijab on the job. (Courtesy: Edmonton Police Service)

He sent a letter to the city's executive committee last year calling for them to make the change. Failing to get a response, he decided to force the issue.

But it was a coincidence, he said, that the motion came up for debate on the same day the city presented in Quebec City. Montreal was originally scheduled to testify last week.

If passed, Bill 21 would ban public workers in positions of authority, including teachers, lawyers and police officers, from wearing religious symbols.

Lack of diversity

The SPVM has struggled to diversify its pool of officers. Only 7.5 per cent are visible minorities, according to its 2017 annual report — far from reflective of the city's population.

Montreal's police force hasn't taken a position on Bill 21. In the past, representatives from the SPVM have said the question of religious symbols is only theoretical, since no one who wears one has applied to work for the force.

The city's police union has said it's in favour of the ban.

A ban on police wearing religious symbols is consistent with the 2008 Bouchard-Taylor report into the accommodation of minorities.

The report recommended that public workers who exercise the coercive authority of the state be barred from wearing religious garb. But the authors also acknowledged that "a police force is likely to more readily gain the trust of a diversified population if it is diversified and inclusive."

Rotrand wants the SPVM to welcome minorities who wear religious symbols. (CBC)

Charles Taylor, a prominent philosopher and one of the co-authors of the report, has since backed away from that position.

In 2017, he said the political and social climate in Quebec has changed and the recommendation is no longer required to promote harmony between Quebec's majority and minority populations.

"We are still waiting for an explanation about why this is necessary," Taylor said last week, during his testimony at the Bill 21 hearings.


Benjamin Shingler is a senior writer based in Montreal. He specializes in health and social issues, and previously worked at The Canadian Press and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal.