MONTREAL — A proposal by Mayor Gérald Tremblay’s administration to adjourn a Montreal city council meeting early for Yom Kippur touched off a heated exchange among the three municipal parties and threatened to reignite Quebec’s reasonable accommodation debate.
As it turned out, the council completed its work on Tuesday, Sept. 25 by 4 p.m., well before the start of the holiday.
The controversy began when Anie Samson, who leads the official opposition Vision Montréal on the council, objected to an earlier announcement by majority leader Marvin Rotrand, a longtime Snowdon councillor, that council business would stop at 5 p.m. that day, out of respect for Yom Kippur.
She called it an unjustified suspension of city business, considering only three out of 65 councillors are Jewish, and said that it contradicts to her belief that city hall is a secular public institution.
Moreover, Samson said it set a precedent that opened the door to other religious and cultural communities wanting to have their holidays observed.
She suggested that the three Jewish councilors – all of whom, including Rotrand, are members of Tremblay’s Union Montréal – should be allowed to take off the holiday without penalty. Normally, councillors are fined $100 if they miss a council meeting without a valid reason.
The rhetoric was ramped up when Richard Bergeron, leader of the other opposition party, Projet Montréal, accused Samson of stirring up antisemitism, which he termed “irresponsible.”
Bergeron accepted the administration’s decision to halt the council’s proceedings out of respect for the Jewish councillors.
Rotrand claimed it has been the practice of city council to not meet on major Jewish and other communities’ holidays for at least the 30 years he’s been on council, going back to the days of former mayor Jean Drapeau.
The council meets monthly on a Monday afternoon and evening, and its work usually carries over to Tuesday during the day, finishing between 4 and 6:30 p.m., he said. Sometimes, the council does resume at 7 p.m., if necessary.
Rotrand pointed out that the council never meets on Wednesdays, and if it didn’t finish at 5 on Tuesday, it could reconvene on Thursday morning, Sept. 27. Rotrand sent a letter to the two opposition leaders to this effect a week earlier.
The executive committee does meet on Wednesday, but its meetings are not public.
Rotrand maintained that city council meetings by law must be open to the public, and sitting on Yom Kippur prevents the Jewish community from being full participants in the municipal process.
He said further that the council should no more meet on Yom Kippur or Ramadan than on Christmas. Samson, however, countered that Christmas is a statutory holiday.
The argument escalated when Rotrand charged that Samson had “insulted” and “attacked” the Jewish community, and demanded a public apology. He resented her suggestion that the city administration is imposing a Jewish holiday on all councillors.
Samson, who represents Villeray-St. Michel- Parc Extension, refused, and she was supported by Vision Montréal leader Louise Harel, a former Parti Québécois cabinet minister, and her entire caucus.
Samson said she recognized the importance of Yom Kippur to Jews and is not against any particular community, but rather for what is right for the population as a whole.
Rotrand also referred to Montreal’s unanimous adoption in 2005 of a Charter of Rights and Responsibilities, in which the city pledged to respect religious and other diversity.
Rabbi Reuben Poupko, a member of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs executive, said the Jewish community has no expectation that city council should adjourn for a Jewish holiday.
“I’m confident city business will be able to carry on in the absence of Mr. Rotrand,” he said.
The need for a “handful” of councillors to be away for a Jewish holiday should not be confused with the accommodation of Jewish employees who want to take religious holidays or educational institutions scheduling exams, for example, on Jewish holidays, Rabbi Poupko added.