A Montreal YMCA has decided to replace four frosted windows that ended up at the heart of a roiling debate about the limits of accommodating religious minorities.
The four windows were installed at the behest of a congregation of ultra-Orthodox Jews who wanted to obscure the view of women in scanty exercise clothes. The move ignited a province-wide controversy, still being felt in the current provincial election campaign, over how far Quebec should go to meet the demands of minorities.
The YMCA, after consulting its members, announced yesterday it had decided to replace the opaque windows with regular glass. It will also install shades that can be raised or lowered by members from the inside.
"We were very surprised by the scope this took and the intensity of the reaction," Serge St-André, director of the YMCA branch, said in an interview. "But we've learned that people are emotional about these kinds of things. They want choice."
The YMCA polled a sample of 302 members and results indicated 72 per cent favoured regular windows with blinds.
The YMCA branch on Park Avenue in Montreal is set in a multicultural neighbourhood that includes a fast-growing community of devout Hasidic Jews. Members of a synagogue and religious school next to the YMCA complained that their younger male members were being distracted by the sight of women in exercise clothes.
The controversy grew into a major source of debate in Quebec; Action Démocratique du Québec Leader Mario Dumont seized on the issue of so-called reasonable accommodation, saying that Quebec had to safeguard its traditional values. The position helped Mr. Dumont gain support outside of Montreal and he is now in a three-way race leading to next Monday's vote.
The windows became a catalyst for a debate on other examples of accommodation, which continue to make headlines. Recently, an 11-year-old Muslim girl from Ottawa was expelled by a referee from of soccer game near Montreal because of her hijab. Last week, a teenage Muslim woman from Montreal hoping to become a Quebec correctional officer said she was told she had to choose between her job and her hijab, which was deemed a safety risk. She chose her head covering.
Renée Lavaillante, who launched a petition against the windows at the YMCA, said yesterday she hopes the institution realizes it acted too quickly in installing the frosted windows. (One of the four windows has already been replaced with clear glass after being broken by a rock thrower.)
"Maybe the Y will think more about defending values we've had for so long, and that we mustn't lose," Ms. Lavaillante said. "The Y shouldn't co-operate in creating a ghetto. The frosted windows gave in to the demands of a ghetto."
Mr. St-André said some women told the Y they preferred having the blinds lowered while they exercised, and it will be up to them to raise or lower the shades as they see fit. Ms. Lavaillante said she won't lower the blinds when she's in the exercise room, and will "have a discussion" with anyone who tries to.
Mayer Feig, who speaks on behalf of the Hasidic community, said he spoke to members of the Yetev Lev synagogue and while they're sorry they'll lose the opaque windows, they accept the YMCA's decision. "There's no bitterness and we're not taking it as an insult," he said. "We'll continue to be good neighbours."
The YMCA had clear windows with blinds, but they broke and their mechanism posed a safety risk for children --which was why the institution installed the frosted windows in the first place. Mr. St-André said the YMCA will seek a solution to address safety concerns about the new blinds.