In this book excerpt, a look at how planning and zoning intersects with faith and identity in Mississauga.
On Tuesday night, Coach House Books launches Subdivided: City-Building in an Age of Hyper-Diversity. An anthology of essays, observations, and arguments, the book looks at planning and growth through the lens of multiculturalism. In this chapter, Torontoist contributor Fatima Syed looks at a mosque in Mississauga, and how the proposal doesn’t just mean negotiation planning, but notions of race, religion, and identity.
The crowd that gathered outside the Mississauga City Hall committee room and in the corridors leading to it was eerily quiet. On one side stood the supporters of the Meadowvale Islamic Centre (MIC), a largely visible group of Muslim men and women petitioning for a permanent prayer space. Standing apart from them were the predominantly white Meadowvale residents who had turned out in even greater numbers to oppose the plan. There was an uncomfortable tension evident in the sarcasm and scorn present in whispered conversation and snide glances. There was no interaction between the two camps. No one could mistake the fact that the development application for 6508 Winston Churchill Boulevard had surfaced something deeply troubling in an affluent suburban community.
It was September 2015, and municipal councillors had organized a public forum to consider the proposal to build the mosque. In the run-up to the session, a lengthy process that involved many public hearings and hundreds of pages of complex planning documents, the MIC’s plan had met with a reaction that was clearly different than the usual anti-development nimbyism. A flyer had circulated, explicitly denouncing the mosque proposal and suggesting it would lead to increased violence and crime, and ‘set women’s rights back a century.’ The flyer advertised an e-petition–available at stopthemosque.com–to halt the construction of ‘another Canadian cultural hole.’ At the bottom of the leaflet, two Canadian flags were placed next to each other. The first depicted the maple leaf; the other, a moon and star. ‘We want this,’ read the caption under the first; ‘not this,’ read the caption beneath the second.
As the city councillors on the planning and development committee began to debate the application, Mayor Bonnie Crombie took the time to condemn the flyer’s author, one Kevin Johnston–a former mayoral candidate and founder of stopthemosque.com. She described his campaign as ‘hate-mongering’ in the presence of a council chamber filled beyond capacity–an overflow that had to be directed to adjacent committee rooms where people could watch the proceedings on television screens.
Crombie was lauded by the mainstream media and Muslim communities across Canada for what Toronto Star columnist Royson James called ‘her principled, unflinching rejection.’ Despite those responses, reporters covering the conflict had already given Johnston serious journalistic attention and had aired the views of the local councillor, who opposed the mosque out of a stated concern for constituents, insisting their objections were only about planning issues such as traffic congestion.
All the mixed messages and steadfast rebuttals raised troubling issues. In settings such as these public meetings, it was easy to see the enormous forces stacked against new immigrant communities seeking to establish places of worship. And despite all the protestations to the contrary, the meeting had a distinctly racist overtone. There was simply no other word to describe what I’d heard.
‘Toronto at one time, when it was a white Christian city, had a particularly high number of churches per capita,’ says Jason Hackworth, professor of planning and geography at the University of Toronto. Churches were about ten minutes apart. Yet as the world’s most ethnically diverse urban centre, the Greater Toronto Area struggles to reflect that demographic reality in its current spiritual landscape. The city has relatively few mosques or temples, considering the size of the non-Christian population; most operate in converted buildings, often unrecognizable as places of worship. Others are hidden behind the doors of churches no longer used by Christian congregations.
The GTA takes great pride in its multiculturalism: somewhere between 38 and 46 per cent of Toronto’s population is foreign-born. More importantly, the religious makeup of newcomer groups has diversified drastically: in 1971, those claiming to be Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist comprised a mere 2.9 per cent of immigrants to the region; by the 2000s, this number had shot up to 33 per cent of newcomers. In 2016, 12 per cent of the GTA’s population is Muslim.
A city’s built form should, in theory, reflect the multiplicity of faiths of newcomer groups, with a growth in the number of purpose-built, non-Judeo-Christian religious structures. But under the feel-good rhetoric about diversity lies a complicated, and oftentimes racist, conflict over space between established residents and newcomers. A 1999 study by the Joint Centre of Excellence for Research on Immigration and Settlement in Toronto found that seventeen of the thirty-five GTA municipalities had experienced at least one fight between immigrant communities and the municipal government over proposals for mosques or temples. ‘Most compelling was the fact that in fourteen of these seventeen instances the conflicts involved zoning disputes over land use,’ the authors note. ‘Most typical were conflicts over attempts to establish or enlarge mosques which occurred in at least nine municipalities.’
These clashes over public and spiritual space underscore some important notions about the nature of citizenship. Who belongs in the city? Who has a right to shape space, and on what terms?
Grand religious structures marked with domes, minarets, paintings and statues have always exerted a powerful emotional tug on urban communities and shaped the form of the cities in which they’re located. But in periods of immigration, churches, mosques and temples have served as much more than just religious and spiritual centres. They become points of reference for newcomers, affirming their presence as they confront otherness. These places can provide a space of belonging and a reminder of the old on new streets. In the 1840s, for example, African-American refugees fleeing slavery founded a Methodist Episcopal church in a working-class Toronto enclave to serve not just as a spiritual and communal organization, but also a place to fight the injustice of slavery and help provide settlement services for those arriving on the Underground Railroad.
‘New immigrants consider the church as a part of their homeland,’ says Fr. Pishoy Wasfy of the Canadian Coptic Centre. The first step toward integration is to provide familiarity and settlement assistance, which is why the Coptic Centre also has a daycare, a gymnasium, a private school and banquet halls inside its grand, golden-domed building.
Such structures encapsulate years and generations of upbringing, tradition, community and language. ‘We’re a centre, not a church,’ says Father Wasfy. ‘You try and serve all the possible aspects of a person.’ There was a time when the centre was just a school surrounded by farmland. Before that, founding members of the centre’s community held Bible study in each other’s dining rooms. Today, the centre is practically at capacity–a mark of its importance and relevance to the larger Egyptian Coptic Christian community in the GTA.
While newcomer faiths may differ in their specific beliefs and practices, all are rooted in this emotional attachment to a cultural community. Major Singh, architect of the Sikh Spiritual Centre in Toronto, wanted to design a structure that would be a visual representation of a traditional Sikh temple. ‘But you have to marry the existing building with city codes and the views of everyone involved’–two vastly different perspectives that are difficult to unite. One is driven by practical policy; the other by emotion. Singh remembers when the centre was just a decrepit factory building in Rexdale, a ‘Price Reduced’ sign in its window. ‘People came in the evening after work and stayed till midnight to convert the building,’ he recalls. Some slept in the half-constructed structure at night.
Other groups with fewer resources are less concerned with building a temple or mosque than just finding a space to pray together, says Nazir Khan, founding member and president of Jam’e Masjid–the Islamic Propagation Centre of Ontario. Indeed, the stories of most newcomer spiritual spaces begin this way, with prayer services initially taking place in basements and school gyms. ‘Halfway through a prayer service, a school caretaker knocked on the door and told us to go home,’ says Singh. ‘We knew then we needed our own place.’ Khan, too, rented a storefront space in a plaza opposite his apartment at Dundas and Highway 10 before parking overflow became an issue for neighbouring store owners and forced the worshippers out.
But when one community claims space as its own, others may assert counterclaims, and the result is conflict infected with religious rivalry, or worse. Arpita Biswas, a Toronto-based psychologist who specializes in immigrant and settlement-related stress, suggests that opposition may derive from ‘a prejudice that comes from the fear of the unknown and the fear of something changing in their familiar environment.’ The clash occurs when one side demands assimilation while the other is trying to integrate on its own terms. In most cases, people integrate through a process of culture-shedding, where deep-rooted values are cast aside as the new culture is learned. Assimilation, on the other hand, occurs when cultural roots are abandoned completely.
Many people naturally perceive the world in stark us-and-them terms, says Biswas, and this instinctive dualism, manifest in most religions, has shaped and reshaped cities for as long as they have existed. Some early Christian popes built churches with material looted from ancient Rome’s pagan temples. In the old city of Jerusalem, sacred Jewish, Christian and Muslim structures have existed for centuries in close proximity–a reflection of the three religions’ common roots and historical rivalries.
Further west, Istanbul’s skyline is unforgettably marked by the four minarets and imposing blue dome of the Hagia Sophia, a former Christian cathedral (the world’s largest until 1520) later transformed into an imperial Ottoman mosque in 1453 (it is now a museum). Minarets were added by Ottoman rulers in the fifteenth century and the interior was changed–the altar was renovated to a mihrab, a semicircular niche in the wall that points to Mecca. Standing steps from the Turkish capital’s defining Blue Mosque, the museum today captures the intimate, and sometimes uncomfortable, historical and spatial relationships between the generations of people who flow through cities over time.
In modern, culturally diverse cities like Toronto, places of worship pass from religion to religion as congregations build or dwindle, a process dictated by the specific needs of the flows of newcomer groups arriving and departing. How we negotiate those demographic transitions, and the emotionally fraught disputes over spiritual spaces, reveals much about the state of the region’s diversity and its much-hyped tolerance. Questionable, in fact, is whether the planning-approvals process for structures such as the Meadowvale Islamic Centre is neutral, or if it detrimentally forces private religious congregations to venture into the public forum, where they encounter hostile–even racist–opposition.
In cities around the world, newcomer or minority religious institutions often face obstacles when they seek to insert themselves into urban spaces with dominant religions or cultures. These projects can become convoluted battles with both bureaucracy and human nature. In October 2015, for example, municipal officials in London, England, finally denied a proposal to build what would have been Britain’s largest mosque, after a 16-year battle. The so-called ‘mega-mosque,’ with 58-metre minarets, would have boasted three times as much floor space as St. Paul’s Cathedral, enough to accommodate 10,000 worshippers. The drawn-out application process was marred by accusations of racism on both sides, and the threat of terrorist links. Some observers blamed divisions within the Muslim community as a reason for the denial of the application. Other cities have experienced similar fights. In March 2016, municipal officials in Arhus, Denmark, halted plans to build a mega-mosque, while Muslim community members in a New Jersey suburb filed a lawsuit fighting the denial of a proposed mosque.
During the Mississauga council’s 2015 public meeting to vet the Meadowvale Islamic Centre application, 26 deputants lined up to speak against the proposed mosque, all of them Caucasian. Two members of the mic and their planning consultant were scheduled to speak in favour. As I watched the proceedings and took it all down in my notebook, every cheer and outburst of applause for the anti-mosque side felt like a brick in the dividing wall. One attendee, who sat next to me before the meeting began, recalls that walking into the committee room was an alarming experience. Clad in a light blue headscarf that day, she described how she’d felt like she was being watched, scrutinized and isolated by the crowd outside the doors. It was a deeply troubling sensation, difficult to shake.
For all that, Moid Mohammed, an MIC spokesperson, gamely refused to take offence at the negative sentiments directed at the project. ‘Any change in the community will bring resistance and anxiety,’ he said. His patient response contrasted sharply with the reaction of one woman who cried audibly as she insisted that, while everyone deserved a place to worship, the proposed site was not the right location.
Mohammed said such sessions necessarily dealt with technical and regulatory issues raised by comprehensive studies that only the experts and council could address. In fact, most residents directed their formal comments to such matters, saying the building was too big, or there was not enough parking space. Others said the traffic would endanger children attending nearby schools. A few claimed the minaret and dome were unnecessarily large and should be removed from the design entirely. These planning concerns had been raised over the past two years as the MIC moved through the application process. ‘We worked hard to accommodate all the legitimate concerns of the residents,’ said Mohammed. In fact, the MIC had significantly reduced the height of the minaret and the dome based on previous recommendations from the council’s planning and development committee.
Across the GTA, the battle over the MIC was hardly unique. In 2012, a Markham mosque faced verbal attacks over a similar application, with some residents alleging that the minaret would be used to spy into their backyards. In nearby Thornhill, the Wong Dai Sin, a Taoist Tai Chi temple, had acquired a lot between two 1970s-era houses in 2007. In 2014, after seven years of community meetings, fights over the rezoning application and an appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board, council approved the application. Still, complaints about parking and traffic forced the temple to reconfigure the original two-storey structure into a raised one-storey building. As a result, the Taoist community had to forego planned space for Tai Chi gatherings. Today, the elevated Wong Dai Sin Temple stands on small steel columns painted red, blue and green, a lively rebuke to the mundane grey and brown suburban community that opposed its presence.
Theoretically, Ontario’s Planning Act, which regulates places of worship, is designed to be a non-discriminatory decision-making framework for municipal planning. It governs how land may be used, not who may use it, and so does not set out any particular standards or policies regarding the users of land. The zoning provisions under the Planning Act in the last 10 years have remained relatively unchanged, apart from amendments in 2006 that allowed for greater information, participation and consultation to take place early in the approvals process, giving local residents and community leaders more opportunity to play a part in the planning of communities. Jason Hackworth dismisses this policy framework as a ‘banal expression of Toronto’s new geography,’ where planning favours the participation of established residents, and forces these conflicts to come out in the open.
Most planners, residents and local politicians deny that the approval framework is intentionally bigoted. Even immigrant communities involved in these battles refuse to use that label. ‘As a society, certain words are not acceptable, certain things are not a legitimate thing to say in a multicultural setting,’ says Myer Siemiatycki, a political science professor at Ryerson University.
Yet he has conducted many studies on the planning issues surrounding mosques and concludes that there is an underlying racist tone to what seems like a neutral process. ‘The fear is that “those people” are taking over,’ says Siemiatycki. ‘Some instinctive unfounded fear gets triggered.’ The public meetings and media coverage, too, are not impartial discussions on planning, but instead tense debates about who does or should belong, and where newcomers with different customs are allowed to worship.
‘Ten years back, people were helping minorities,’ says Major Singh. ‘Now we aren’t a minority, we’re in the mainstream. So the question becomes “Why should we make concessions for them?”’
The crux of the problem is that while the region’s demographics have shifted, the rules governing the use of urban space have not kept up. Where are the planning accommodations for the practices of different faiths with larger congregations? Where are the public education policies that close the knowledge and understanding gap between established and newcomer communities? Where are the buildings representing and preserving the cultural heritage of generations of immigrants?
At one of the public meetings held to vet the Meadowvale Islamic Centre’s development application, Moid Mohammed stood to address concerns about the proposal. ‘In the name of God, the most gracious and the most merciful…’ he began.
‘Oh, not this again,’ muttered the woman sitting next to me, shifting in her seat and shaking her head. A man seated in front of her, an MIC badge on his shirt, looked back at her and, just as quickly, looked away silently. Even after planning and council experts had explained thoroughly that the MIC met all the city’s codes, residents continued to complain, before an uncomfortably divided audience, about traffic-related noise, the proximity to backyards and the shadow of the MIC’s minaret.
A few weeks later, in mid-October 2015, the MIC rezoning application arrived at Mississauga city council for a final vote. As the session started, a petition was brought forth demanding a public apology from Mayor Crombie for accusing Kevin Johnston, founder of stopthemosque.com, of hate-mongering. ‘We found the Mayor’s remark to be inflammatory, leading to accusations that the residents of Meadowvale had a racist purpose or similar hidden agenda,’ read the petition. Crombie refused to apologize, and all but one councillor backed her. When the vote was called, the MIC development plan won eleven to one. The councillor opposing in both instances was the same Meadowvale councillor concerned for her constituents. But the approval had a strange caveat: an amendment to ensure the MIC would not install external speakers for the call to prayer–something no mosque in Canada does.
What should we learn from such battles? Until municipal councils grant their approval, the members of faith communities who want to build religious centres find themselves facing an onslaught of audible and often illogical opposition. The underlying feature of these sessions, as well as many of the conversations I’ve had in their aftermath, is a strong feeling of otherness–ironic in a region that claims to value inclusivity and multiculturalism above all else. At some point, this contradiction must be recognized and reconciled so that the mosque and temple are no longer reminders of the outsiders among us, but rather the physical symbols of a tolerant and multicultural region that embraces diversity.
It shouldn’t be hard to accomplish this shift in thinking. City planners and architects agree that while it’s impossible to pass bylaws that suit everyone’s needs, the approvals process can be made more flexible in its requirements, as well as in the way it engages with the public. Toronto is a dense city where space is an increasingly scarce resource, but newcomer communities should be able to secure places to practice their faiths. Municipal planners should be surveying the city to identify potential venues for new religious structures, and minimizing the red tape required to approve them. The entire process should become more accessible to immigrant communities, whose members often struggle to acclimatize. And councils ought to ensure that unreasonable and coded narratives over parking and minaret shadows don’t get in the way of settlement.
As I researched this essay, an imam rhetorically asked me, ‘Where is Canada’s national mosque?’ His point: there isn’t one. His question suggests a desire on the part of communities struggling to raise enough funds to launch an application process, let alone find a space in downtown Toronto where such a structure might proudly stand. After all, Church Street is lined with tall, brick-walled structures with spires visible from great distances. But can we imagine Toronto with a Mosque Street or a Temple Street? Probably not. Yet the imam has hope that someday Toronto will be home to a visible mosque. ‘There will be one,’ he predicts.
His optimism, however, is unfounded. Despite the formal outcome, the emotionally strained council proceedings about the Meadowvale Islamic Centre mosque plan gave me a glimpse of a form of othering I hadn’t thought existed in a hyper-diverse and apparently tolerant city like Greater Toronto. When those opposing the mosque claimed that Mississauga was their home and shouldn’t include a mosque with a minaret because it would ruin the aesthetics of their streets, I felt speechless, my hands shaking as one deputant after another declared that a mosque didn’t belong in their neighbourhood.
I had walked into that Mississauga city council chamber as a journalist. When I left, I felt like an unwelcome alien who’d been stripped of my right to belong in my city.
Edited by Jay Pitter and John Lorinc, Subdivided: City-Building in an Age of Hyper-Diversity launches tonight at 7 p.m. at the Revival Bar at 783 College Street.