MONTREAL — A colourful Sikh musical ensemble, two Muslim imams, a Roman Catholic bishop in full vestment and a fiery black minister who recalled the segregation of his South Carolina childhood denounced Quebec’s proposed secularism charter from the bimah of Montreal's Shaare Zedek Congregation on March 9.
Close to 700 people from a variety of religious and cultural origins, some wearing traditional costumes or religious garb, many in kippot – Jewish or not – filled the synagogue’s sanctuary for an unprecedented show of solidarity in opposing Bill 60.
Almost all had pinned on a white square, the anti-charter symbol designed by the event’s organizer with the synagogue, Canadians for Coexistence, headed by retired teacher Norman Simon.
Although the proposed legislation died on the order paper with the March 5 provincial election call, the Parti Québécois has placed its adoption high on its platform if re-elected.
The 2-1/2-hour rally, which took on the flavour of a revival when a gospel choir sang, had as its MC Côte St. Luc Mayor Anthony Housefather, who wore the kippah made up of Quebec’s fleur-de-lis flag, which was created by Chabad’s Rabbi Yisroel Bernath as a protest against the charter.
Housefather was repeatedly cheered when he denounced the bill and what he sees as a PQ scheme to drive minorities from the province. “They want us to leave so they can win a referendum. Don’t do it – this is our home,” he said.
Housefather said he and other Montreal mayors would challenge the “oppressive” bill on constitutional grounds, if it passes, and would refuse to implement it while the case went through the courts.
Housefather, a lawyer, said the most “draconian” aspect of the bill is that it would amend the Quebec Charter of Human Rights to allow state secularism and the primacy of the French language to supersede the freedoms of religion and expression.
“This is a horrible thing… incredibly dangerous, and it wouldn’t be allowed anywhere else in North America,” he said.
In the afternoon’s most dramatic presentation, Rev. Darryl Gray of the Imani Family and Full Gospel Church and a former Kansas state senator, said the fight against the charter is “very reminiscent of the civil rights struggle” of his youth.
He termed the bill “hateful, discriminatory and racially inflammatory,” and especially objectionable because it is being used by the PQ to “mobilize their base” through “fear-mongering.”
Referring to the presence of private guards, Gray said: “These are serious times, these are very dangerous times when we have to have security around a synagogue just because we are speaking about rights and righteousness.”
The two rabbis participating, Rabbi Lisa Grushcow of Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom and Shaare Zedek’s Allan Bright, told the audience that Judaism considers difference a blessing.
“The silver lining is the way this has brought together people who share a vision of this society. That’s the world I want my children to live in,” Rabbi Grushcow said.
Rabbi Bright, who received a standing ovation for having the “courage” to host the event, said, “For some reason, some people thrive on fearing the stranger… Today, if you walk down the street of any cosmopolitan city you will see more diversity than an 18th-century traveller saw in a lifetime. That is the beauty of the world we live in today… We are enlarged, not threatened, by people who are different from us.”
He urged those present to “demonstrate to his society that religious expression is something to be embraced, not reviled.”
Thomas Dowd, auxiliary bishop of the Catholic Archdiocese of Montreal, said wore “the most ostentatious” religious attire to make a point.
He deplored that the proposed charter has already created social tensions, allowing some people to “feel authorized” to stigmatize those expressing their religion in public.
Imam Zijad Delic, a native of Bosnia, said the bill will force religious minorities to become more closed to others, while Imam Azeddine Hmimssa urged everyone to “fight xenophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and religion phobia.”
Hindu priest Ramnaraine Tiwari Balbahadur called the bill “morally wrong and sinful.”
Also present were Liberal MNAs Kathleen Weill of Notre-Dame-de-Grâce and Lawrence Bergman of D’Arcy McGee, as well as Côte des Neiges-NDG and Montreal executive committee member Mayor Russell Copeman and Jim Beis, who is also on the executive, as well as English Montreal School Board chair Angela Mancini.