By LINDA GYULAI - Quebec municipal affairs minister Louise Harel ventured into one political kerfuffle over Montreal's boroughs yesterday, and wound up creating another with a comment about ethnicity in certain boroughs.
Harel, who recently quit provincial politics, was interviewed by Simon Durivage on Radio-Canada's RDI network to address a suggestion that the number of boroughs be cut from 19 to 10 and the size of city council be shrunk.
The idea was offered this week by Montreal city executive committee member Cosmo Maciocia, the borough mayor of Rivière des Prairies-Pointe aux Trembles, as a way to save money.
His boss, Mayor Gérald Tremblay, quickly dismissed the suggestion as the wrong idea at the wrong time.
"I think it merits study," Harel, who has said she has no intention of running in the Nov. 1 city election, told Durivage. She added that boroughs have become "quasi- municipalities" because the Liberal government gave them too much power.
Harel went on to say: "If we go from 19 to 10 boroughs, but these boroughs remain quasi-municipalities as they are now, we will end up in the worst of situations because we'll have cities ... an Italian city, a Haitian city, an anglophone city, an Arab city - Ville St. Laurent, a Jewish city, etc.
"We will no longer have this sense of one big city with boroughs that speaks with one voice."
Alan DeSousa, the mayor of St. Laurent borough, said he doesn't take kindly to Harel's characterization of his community as an "Arab city."
"I don't think it's appropriate for our community to be dissed in such a cavalier fashion," he said after reading a transcript of Harel's interview.
"I just don't think that Madame Harel knows or understands our community and as a result, based on a lack of knowledge, is quick to jump to stereotypes and conclusions."
The borough boasts 166 cultural communities that live well together, he said.
"In fact, St. Laurent is a microcosm of what Montreal is moving toward. And to just (create) a caricature of the city as a unidimensional city is wrong and doesn't take into account the diversity we have in the community."
Montreal executive committee member Marcel Tremblay said he was perplexed by Harel's comments. "I don't understand how she can come out with comments like that, which could divide our communities," he said.
However, Harel explained in an interview with The Gazette that she meant that she wants everyone, regardless of ethnic origin, to feel a part of the same city, and not just feel like citizens of their respective boroughs, each of which has the identity of the majority group, she said.
"What's better for Quebec is to have one major metropolis where everyone, regardless of their origin, feels like a citizen of the same city."
Harel was municipal affairs minister when the former Parti Québécois government merged island municipalities and created boroughs in 2002.
She said Premier Jean Charest later granted boroughs limited legal status and taxation power and turned borough presidents into borough mayors to mollify demerger advocates.
Some councillors agree that boroughs are now mini-cities.
"I've always considered the decentralization went too far," said opposition leader Benoit Labonté, who leads Vision Montreal party.
[Sowing xenophobia, outraged groups say
Harel's remarks condemned->http://www.montrealgazette.com/Life/Sowing+xenophobia+outraged+groups/1376128/story.html]
By IRWIN BLOCK, The GazetteMarch 11, 2009
Community groups' reaction to Louise Harel's remarks on ethnic mini-cities varied yesterday from shock to surprise.
Salam Elmanyawi, president of the Muslim Council of Montreal, asked if a borough elects a mayor of Italian or Jewish origin, "does this make it an Italian or Jewish city?"
"This is really racist," he said in a phone interview.
"Will reducing the number of boroughs from 19 make it more likely for there to be an Arab city or a Jewish city? What logic is she using?
"The only thing I can see is fear mongering," he added, suggesting Harel was out to marginalize members of ethnic communities and curtail their power.
"It isn't anymore about English- and French-speaking, it's now about ethnicity."
Ninette Piou, president of the National Council of Citizens of Haitian Origin, said Harel's comments were "unacceptable, inadmissible."
"We are all Montrealers. We all work for the development of Montreal and Quebec," she said.
Kéder Hippolyte, a veteran Haitian community activist, said the ethnic references are "frightening, especially coming from her."
"Are they not citizens? Are they not Quebecers? Do they have rights? Can they elect one of their own?" he asked.
The Quebec section of the Canadian Jewish Congress expressed disappointment that Harel used ethnic, religious and linguistic distinctions to label boroughs.
"Every one of these boroughs is a multicultural, multiracial, multireligious area," spokesperson Robert Presser said.
Tony Sciascia, president of the Italian Canadian Congress, Quebec region, wondered how reducing the number of boroughs to cut costs would fortify ethnic enclaves.
"What she is saying is not well founded," Sciascia said.
Robert Libman, the former mayor of Côte St. Luc, said Harel is "sowing the seeds of xenophobia by pointing to identifiable communities."
"Municipal structures are about delivering a range of service in the most efficient way possible. It's not related to the concentration of ethnic origins in some neighbourhoods.
"It's as if she sees bogeymen in everything that is not white and francophone," Libman said.
The Borough Debate
How do you feel about the effect of reducing the number of boroughs on Montreal's character? Let us know your views at montrealgazette.com
- Harel says she fears ethnic boroughs <br>- Sowing xenophobia, outraged groups say Harel's remarks condemned
- Already too strong, she argues: Ex-PQ minister says Montrealers should feel part of whole city, not a district