Hundreds of people flocked to Brampton’s city hall last week for a unexpectedly popular meeting of the city’s planning and development committee.
Normally, fewer than 12 people attend. This meeting attracted 649.
At the heart of the matter: the proposed construction of a new mosque in the city’s east end, where there isn’t one currently. Many Muslim Bramptonians spoke in favour of the new building, though some residents voiced concerns about increased traffic and potential crime.
Mayor Patrick Brown said he was concerned some comments had a “flavour of Islamophobia,” but following a year of woeful civic engagement (just 87,155 people cast a ballot in October’s municipal election) he and councillors who spoke to CBC Toronto were buoyed to see so many people getting involved in a public debate.
“Democracy works best when we have the most participation,” said Gurpartap Singh Toor, the regional councillor for Wards 9 and 10.
“We want people to come fill city hall.”
‘Extremely important’ to be heard, say participants
And fill it they did — until the early morning hours.
A couple of hundred people registered to speak in advance and hundreds more registered on the day, seeing participants fill the rotunda and various spillover rooms throughout city hall.
Singh Toor said the meeting ended at 4 a.m., marking the longest he had ever attended and possibly one of the longest in Brampton’s history.
Bilal Akhtar attended the meeting with his parents to speak in favour of the proposed Islamic centre, which will also includes classrooms, a gym and community spaces. It took him an hour just to register to speak.
“The scale of it all was very surprising to me,” he said.
“It felt more like taking a flight the day before Christmas … or a train station right at rush hour.”
Azeem Sheikh attended with his wife and spoke in favour of the mosque at around 12:30 a.m. He says the community has longed for a real mosque for many years, as many have been praying in a tiny make-do facility in a nearby strip mall with issues such as nearby sounds interrupting prayers.
Even though he knew he could leave, he says he didn’t think a written submission would convey his emotions the same way.
“Being able to be part of that process and being heard, was to us extremely, extremely important,” he said.
Sheikh added he was impressed by city staff and councillors who stuck out the entire debate.
Debate, at least in-person, stays civil
CBC Toronto viewed most of the debate live until nearly 1 a.m. through an online stream, and the end of the meeting once a link was posted to the city’s website.
The meeting heard from some who lived near the proposed mosque site on Clarkway Drive (Ward 10), who were worried they’d lose privacy as the area became busier. Traffic concerns also came up.
Singh Toor said he was concerned by comments he heard about people from “outside of the community coming in,” which came up multiple times.
Multiple Muslim delegates called that “dog-whistling.”
Brown decried several online comments saying residents were open to a new place of worship, but not one for the Muslim faith. He said he worried tensions would be high during the meeting, but found people were mostly respectful to others, even laughing or joking together with those knew held different views.
“Online, people can be vicious because they don’t see each other,” he said. “But you all get in the same room in the same house of democracy and you realize the people you are upset with or opposing are your neighbours.”
“We have property rights in Canada. And if someone purchased a property, they have the right to put forward a development proposal,” he said.
“There is no masjid in the east end of Brampton …. I don’t think it’s entirely unexpected that the community would want to find a place of worship.”
Neither Brown nor the councillors present took a position on the mosque during the meeting.
‘Every single person was heard,’ councillor says
Just before midnight, when the meeting was set to end, councillors voted to keep the debate going.
“We made sure that every single person was heard when they made time,” Singh Toor said, adding almost everyone who spoke was giving their first public deputation.
His hope is now that they know how the process works, “they’ll do it again on other issues they care about.”
Brampton’s City Clerk, Peter Fay, said city planning staff will make its recommendation on the mosque development — along with a summary of public comments — to city council in January.
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