The Town of Hampstead was all prepared for an onslaught of angry questions at last week's council meeting, in light of Mayor William Steinberg's recent characterization of Quebec's proposed religious symbols law as a form of ethnic cleansing.
Bill 21 would prohibit newly hired people under provincial jurisdiction in positions of authority, such as police and prison guards and including teachers — from wearing kippahs, hijabs, turbans, crosses and other religious symbols.
Steinberg's comment brought about a torrent of media attention, and numerous nasty comments directed at him on Twitter, mostly from francophone Quebecers. Many callers on English talk radio supported Steinberg.
A planned earlier special council meeting was cancelled, and the May 13 meeting took place as scheduled. To prepare for an expected large attendance, many more chairs were brought to the council chamber. As well, for the first time in my 25 years of covering Hampstead, potential questioners were required to show ID and register at a specially set up desk.
But as it turned out, only two council regulars stayed for the meeting — resident Jeremy Levi and Sonny Moroz of Mount Royal MP Anthony Housefather's office— but at least three people registered to ask questions, all of them prominent Montreal journalists.
First up was Yves Poirier of TVA.
"I did an interview with you in front of city hall on Bill 21 and I asked you a simple question- are you going to apologize, you used a word 'ethnic cleansing' and you were criticized by [Montreal Mayor] Valérie Plante, [Premier] François Legault and others," Poirier asked. "One month later, what's your position? Are you going to apologize tonight?"
"The short answer is no, and I really have nothing else to say on the subject," Steinberg replied.
Poirier then asked Steinberg to respond to what the journalist said were negative comments sent to the town.
"Did you receive support from the community?" the journalist asked.
Steinberg said he received "overwhelming" support via e-mails, phone messages and interactions with members of the public.
Max Harrold of CTV was next, paraphrasing Steinberg as saying "by using this type of inflammatory language, you were hoping to get people to realize how offensive you believe Bill 21 is."
Steinberg repeated that he said everything he had to say on the topic, and denied that he referred to his own Bill 21 comments as "inflammatory language."
Last up was Denis Couture of Cogeco.
"When you made the comment about ethnic cleansing, did you purposely think it would be provocative?" the journalist asked. "Was it your intention to be provocative?"
Steinberg said he answered the question previously.
"I'm not going to keep repeating the same thing."
"Has your [opinion] evolved on this since last month?" Couture asked.
"No, my views are exactly the same," the Mayor replied.