“It’s nothing to do with the mosque. That’s up to you if you want to connect those things.”
So said this person delivering fliers in my neighbourhood on Monday morning. For 20 years I’ve owned my home and lived in the Laurelwood neighbourhood in the northwest corner of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. My family has seen cornfields turn to housing developments and empty spaces turn to grocery stores, gas stations and banks. For the most part, it has been a peaceful, almost sedate experience. The sense of “neighbourhood” has mostly been focused around the very good schools in our corner of the region. There have been occasional disagreements and dust-ups, but nothing on the scale of where we find ourselves today.
Here’s the flier she handed me.
I had asked why she was against rezoning 510 Erbsville Road in Waterloo from its current Agriculture designation to Institution and Green 1. The owners of the property, the Muslim Association of Canada, are hoping to eventually build a community centre for Muslim families in the neighbourhood, but for now they would simply like to gather in the existing farmhouse to pray together. I myself am more a man of science than faith, but I welcome and support all citizens gathering peacefully, pursuing whatever it is that helps them get by. This is that.
“We want to keep the agriculture land” the flier-hander-outer then told me. Followed by “we want to keep our neighbourhood quiet”. Many of my friends and neighbours are Muslim. I have only positive experiences with them all. I thought about those friends and neighbours coming home from work and school and finding this flier in their mailbox. How must they feel? When we say “our neighbourhood” they are most certainly included. The operative word is “our”.
My own knee-jerk reaction was that the issue was less about traffic/farmland/noise and more about intolerance. I’ve always been wary of the vocal mob pile-on. In the spirit of rational, respectful, fact-based consideration, I geared down my emotional response and did what is always best in these situations: I read hundreds of pages of rezoning-related documents on the City of Waterloo web site. That slows you right down as you try to parse engineering-speak, studies of traffic, noise, sight lines, slope stability, breeding grounds of the blanding turtles, occurrence of migratory birds, septic system assessment, soil permeability studies, woodlot assessment and more. Last night, I read over 300 pages of rezoning-related documents, challenges and responses concerning this application. I found nothing to substantiate any of the claims by the stop-the-rezoning contingent.
I encourage everyone to get fully informed by reading the documents linked from this City of Waterloo web page. Especially, the “Response letter report” in the second submission, dated Feb 17, 2017. That will be a basis for fact-based discussion.
What you will find is that the Muslim Association of Canada has responded to every reasonable concern. Further, they have addressed the concerns on future development of the site by requesting that a Holding (‘H’) provision be attached to the property, effectively committing to terms associated with that future development such as attaching to the municipal water and wastewater/sanitary services. These people have gone above and beyond to address concerns from the City of Waterloo, the Region of Waterloo, the Grand River Conservation Authority, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, Stantec Consulting Limited and concerned citizens through public information gatherings.
With this understanding, I visited the “This is the WRONG location!” web site noted in the flier which is petitioning the City of Waterloo to reject the rezoning request. I wanted to understand the nature of the objections. I was also very curious who was raising the objections.
On the first count, there was little more in the petition than there was on the red and green flier in my hand. Concerns: increased traffic, noise, safety of pedestrians, and a baffling notion that there was no “justification” for a place of prayer in the neighbourhood. Again, none of it held water in the context of the application and studies I had read.
On the second count, I was happy to learn that some folks had signed their full names in petition comments and then disappointed that I knew several of those names. This is where it gets harder. It would be prejudicial if I assumed I knew that those people were against the rezoning for any reasons beyond the ones they stated.
I am equally confounded by the simplistic outrage expressed on social media, seemingly in support of the rezoning. “You suck, Laurelwood!” I read, from a person outside of the neighbourhood and not from the Muslim community. I mean… where do we go from there? I’ll tell you where: to respectful, rational, fact-based discussion. Nurturing cohesive neighbourhoods has emerged as a popular strategy among local governments. We’ve painted community murals in intersections, built gazebos and cleaned up parkland. Now it is critical to muster patience, check emotions and come together, because ultimately we all live here. Together.
When my kids were young, I explained to them the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Most of it is straightforward, including Part I, 2(a) of the Constitution Act (1982), which asserts for all Canadians “freedom of conscience and religion” and in ( c ) “freedom of peaceful assembly”. And because part (b) includes “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression”, I agreed when the person in my driveway, with a bag full of fliers, said “It’s my right to hand these out.” Happily, the Charter is a package deal, so it is incumbent on us to roll with all the rights.
I hope you will get informed and join the discussion. If you want to reach out to Waterloo City Council you’ll find contact info here.
[Update 2017–04–09: here’s a follow-up “This is my neighbour, Sameh”]