Allison Hanes: Too little, too late for anti-racism commissioner?

As Bochra Manaï belatedly reaches out to Jewish groups on the mayor’s orders, Valérie Plante is facing renewed pressure to replace her.

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When Bochra Manaï, Montreal’s embattled antiracism commissioner, was first questioned about her participation in a pro-Palestinian rally where a controversial imam uttered statements that are now being investigated by police as a possible hate crime, she responded with an impassioned opinion piece in Le Devoir.

Describing her involvement in the demonstration as her “duty as a human” and her “individual position,” she seemed to have little appreciation of her role as a civil servant responsible for combatting racism and discrimination against all groups in Montreal, or her responsibility trying to ease tensions at a time of extraordinary strife in the city.

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But 10 days after her explanation was published, her concern about hate incidents, both Islamophobic and antisemitic, and “commitment” to connect with members of the Muslim, Arab and Jewish communities ring a bit hollow.

So far, that promise has amounted to a form letter proposing a meeting.

And that was after a Jewish group demanded Manaï’s resignation, condemning her bias for taking part in the protest and denouncing her “silence” when the community’s schools were hit with bullets and a synagogue targeted by a firebomb. That was after Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante had to remind her of her “duty of reserve” and ordered her to reach out to all groups affected by the war between Israel and Hamas.

Given her marching orders, Manaï seems to be keeping a lower profile these days.

Attempts to interview her this week about her plans to rebuild broken bridges were forwarded to the city’s media relations department. Questions about who she has contacted, who she has met, and how those encounters went, were answered with a one-paragraph synopsis and a copy of the email she sent out to groups.

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“Recently you have been concerned about the exercising of my role as commissioner in all neutrality. … I heard you,” Manaï wrote, without a hint of regret.

She said she is taking steps to re-establish “confidence with the communities affected by the conflict between Israel and Palestine.” She provided a list of nine Jewish groups she proposed to meet. She is also preparing invitations for Arab and Muslim groups. Her office is going to “create several listening spaces so that different actors can exchange on Montreal’s priority of ensuring the security of all the communities,” according to the email she sent them. “All voices need to be reassured and heard.”

This sounds more like kind of thing Montrealers would expect from the antiracism commissioner in the first place — before having to be prodded by the boss.

But it may be too little, too late.

For the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, the group that first demanded Manaï’s resignation, “that ship has sailed.”

“The choice of when she was silent and when she was vocal is very telling. And she has lost the confidence of Montreal’s Jewish community and she has lost the confidence of Montrealers in her ability to fulfill the role,” said Eta Yudin, CIJA’s vice-president. “A meeting at this point to just reaffirm that that confidence is lost is not really a step forward. A step forward would be for her to resign or for the mayor to find someone to fill that role who would be aligned with the mayor’s own views on antisemitism and commitment to fighting antisemitism, Islamophobia and all forms of racism, and someone who has the moral clarity and leadership to gain the confidence of all minority groups and Montrealers.”

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Rabbi Adam Scheier of the Congregation Shaar Hashomayim declined to meet Manaï for “failing in her mandate in the most serious and deplorable manner.” He did, however, offer to get together with her successor, or the mayor to help her find one.

B’nai Brith is still mulling over whether there’s any value in talking with Manaï.

“Should the mayor have to tell a police officer to pull over someone after a hit-and-run? Should the mayor have to tell the fire department to respond to a five-alarm fire?” said Henry Topas, the regional director for Quebec at B’nai Brith Canada. “Had (Manaï) publicized her opposition to any other minority: the Black, the Indigenous, the LGBTQ, do you think she would still be in her position? Would she have lasted even five minutes? Why is it different vis-à-vis the Jewish community?”

Manaï may have discredited herself. But the controversy has also raised questions about differing expectations for Montreal’s antiracism commissioner more generally.

In Le Devoir, Manaï insisted her job only focuses inward.

“My role at the City of Montreal, as a bureaucrat, concerns internal change and that I don’t have a role of public representation,” she wrote. “I was named to work with the entirety of the municipal apparatus to accelerate the transformation for an administration exempt from racism and systemic discrimination. This mission inhabits me and it’s to it that a consecrate all my efforts and energy.”

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Is this narrow interpretation just a cop-out? Or is there a fundamental disconnect about what the office should be doing?

The synopsis of the commissioner’s role on the city website is vague, but it does include the goal of “making Montreal a more fair and inclusive city” and mentions “coordinating awareness about hate incidents and crimes” with Montreal police and other bodies.

The fact that the mayor told Manaï to go speak with all groups affected by the conflict suggests outreach is, in fact, in the job description.

But Plante’s office did not respond to repeated requests over three days seeking clarity about whether it’s the mandate that’s at issue or the person serving in the position. Nor did the mayor comment on whether belated efforts by the commissioner to repair damaged relations were sufficient — or if she still has confidence in Manaï as calls for her departure mount.

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If there is one civil servant who should be able to rise above the fray of the hostilities dividing diverse Montreal, if there was one official who should have the moral authority to find common ground among all peoples reeling from a polarizing conflict, it should be the antiracism commissioner.

Instead, Manaï seems to have put her personal political convictions ahead of the potential heft of her office.

For someone who professes to love peace, she has squandered an opportunity to help restore calm in her own city.

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