Tensions over yellow badge protest belie improving relations in Outremont, residents say

Hasidic Jews in Outremont are hoping a controversial protest that, for some, evoked memories of the Holocaust, doesn't take away from the promise of a more co-operative approach taken by the new borough administration.

'It used to be a circus,' says Cheskie Weise, but new Projet Montréal administration intent on bridge-building

Outremont resident Ginette Chartre, seen here speaking at Monday's borough council meeting, dismissed those who took offence at her yellow badge of protest. Outremont borough Mayor Philipe Tomlinson looks on. (Canadian Press)

The sight of a handful of Outremont residents wearing square yellow badges to protest against the Hasidic community's use of school buses shocked and offended many people at Monday's borough council meeting — evoking, as it did, memories of the Holocaust.

But Cheskie Weise, a member of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community who runs a blog called Outremont Hassid, says he's optimistic the latest controversy won't take away from the promise of a new, more co-operative approach to Hasidic-municipal relations in Outremont.

Weise says, overall, the atmosphere at council meetings has improved in recent months.

"Things are positive. There's no bickering between the council members. It used to be a circus. Now, it doesn't happen anymore," Weise told CBC News in a phone interview.

Led by Outremont resident Ginette Chartre, some eight or nine people wore yellow squares on their lapels to protest against the number of buses, which they argue cause too much traffic on residential streets.

Chartre dismissed those who took offence and reminded her that it recalled when European Jews were forced to wear yellow stars under the Nazi regime.

Jews "always bring up their painful past,'' she told The Canadian Press. "They do it to muzzle us. We're wearing the yellow square because the school buses are yellow.

"We are living an injustice. We are being persecuted by them," she said.

Longstanding tensions

The incident was the latest manifestation of longstanding tensions between some Outremont francophones and the borough's growing Hasidic population.

The borough council is now run by Projet Montréal, which campaigned in last fall's municipal election on a promise to foster dialogue in the community. One of its borough councillors, Mindy Pollak, is Hasidic.

Weise dismissed the yellow-badge protests as the work of "a handful of people who are bored."

"I don't think the tactics should be taken seriously," he said.

"What do you care that the yellow buses pass your house? I think they have an issue with [the people] who are going on the buses."

Encouraging dialogue

Jennifer Dorner, a member of Pluralism Outremont, a group encouraging tolerance and dialogue, was also at the meeting. She told Daybreak she was shocked by the protest.

However, she, too, said she's encouraged by the approach of the borough council, which is "working very hard to build bridges."

Fanny Magini, a Projet Montréal councillor, said her administration has been trying to create an atmosphere of civility at council meetings.

The protest unfolded on the same day her administration unveiled more details for its plans to encourage more dialogue in the borough, as part of an initiative known as Vivre Ensemble, Magini said in an interview.

Projet is planning to organize a roundtable involving stakeholders in the community to come up with solutions to long-festering problems in the neighbourhood.

Magini, who was at Monday's council meeting, said the protest lacked "judgment and sensitivity."

"So, I hope they are reflecting on their actions," she said in a phone interview.

Mindy Pollak is a Hasidic Jew and Outremont borough councillor. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

She added that Outremont is looking at solutions to traffic problems that ensure the safety of children. The borough has the highest percentage of children in the city, she said, with 23 per cent of residents under the age of 14.

In a statement, Mayor Valérie Plante said that living together as a community is sometimes challenging.

"However, I find unacceptable to launch a political action against children," she said.

"They should never be a target."

Coun. Lionel Perez, interim leader of the official opposition, Ensemble Montréal, also expressed his disappointment and sadness at the yellow-badge protest.

"Those yellow squares evoke the dark history of the Holocaust," he wrote in French on his Facebook page. "If that was the intention, it is simply unacceptable, and we have to denounce gestures that plant seeds of division and hate."

"No matter what the issue, we need to be reminded constantly of the importance of living in harmony ['vivre ensemble']."

with files from The Canadian Press