Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Religious rights fight has Quebec in a sweat

By Les Perreaux
The Canadian Press
MONTREAL (Mar 20, 2007)

A Montreal YMCA is replacing its frosted windows with clear windows and blinds that can be closed or opened at the request of members, restoring the view from the exercise room to what it was before the frosted glass was installed.

The view was obscured with the opaque glass last fall at the request of a synagogue across the alley where some young male students found the state of undress of some exercisers to be a distraction.

Some Y members had also complained about people peeping in on them when the windows didn't have frosted glass.

The glass quickly became a flashpoint in an ongoing debate in the province over how far public institutions should go to adapt to the needs of religious minorities.

"It was never our intention to hide women who are training," said Serge St-Andre, director of the Park Avenue YMCA. "We wanted to protect the privacy of our members while respecting the wishes of our neighbours."

As Y management tried to close the curtain on the controversy, the debate on accommodating religious minorities in the province continued on other fronts.

The tabloid Journal de Montreal dedicated yesterday's front page to an expose of a pair of sugar shacks south of Montreal that took efforts to allow Muslims to enjoy the annual spring maple syrup tradition known as sugaring off.

The fatty feast of beans, pea soup, pancakes and massive doses of maple syrup usually includes pounds of pork, something forbidden from the diet of devout Muslims.

One sugar shack removed pork from some food to meet dietary requirements under Islam.

Another shack paused entertainment recently to allow about 20 Muslims to pray on the empty dance floor.

"Pea soup without ham," said one headline in Le Journal. "Our traditions must be respected," said another.

The main protester appeared to be little-known country singer Sylvain Boily, who was forced to take a 10-minute break in his afternoon show.

"It's a Quebec sugar shack," Boily lamented to the paper. "People are there to have fun."

Luc Gladu, the co-owner of sugar shack l'Erabliere au sous-bois, was stunned to see the prayer making provincewide news.

"This is really out of control, they prayed for five minutes and nobody was even dancing," Gladu said.

The sugar shack controversy and the case of the frosted glass are only two examples in debate that has been going on in the province since last fall over the accommodation of minorities.

The YMCA glass controversy became the subject of a petition drive by Renee Lavaillante, who complained the organization should not be veiling women to appease one minority.

"You have to be yourself and protect your values in the face of such requests," Lavaillante said. "I won't be closing the blinds, because it would be collaborating with creating our own ghetto, one I don't wish to be part of."

A poll of YMCA members showed about 72 per cent were satisfied with the solution of covering the windows with blinds.

But the Y is far from alone in feeling the heat.

The hijab head covering worn by some Muslim women was the most recent magnet for controversy. One young Muslim girl wearing a hijab was tossed out of a soccer game in Quebec, triggering headlines worldwide.

The Quebec, Canadian and international soccer federations did not clarify the rules despite immense pressure.

Last week, a Montreal Muslim woman complained that she was forced to chose between her hijab and a job as a prison guard. In both cases, authorities cited safety concerns.

A few months ago, a Montreal community health centre was under fire for holding women-only prenatal classes to make Muslim, Sikh or Hindu women feel more comfortable.

About the same time, an internal Montreal police magazine suggested female officers step aside to let male colleagues deal with Hasidic Jews.

Parti Quebecois Leader Andre Boisclair had to backtrack on his suggestion that it might be time to remove a large wooden crucifix from the Quebec legislature.