Mass gathering in Boisbriand has police puzzling over details

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By Selena Ross, CTV News Montreal

Police in Boisbriand, near Montreal, broke up an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish religious celebration on Saturday night that had grown to over 750 people, arresting one person and handing out more than 16 tickets in the process.

But there are a lot of questions still unanswered about the event, which wasn't organized by well-known religious leaders but which did draw people from other regions, said an officer.

"It's not the leaders of the community who organized that event. It's under investigation -- we're still trying to understand what happened," said Eric Huard, a prevention officer with the regional municipal police force.

Boisbriand, a small town just north of Laval, is home to a big Ultra-Orthodox Jewish population. By and large, that community has been complying very well with COVID-19 laws, said Huard.

"Really, 80 per cent of the people respect totally the rules," he said.

"Everywhere in Quebec it's the same. There's always 20 per cent who don't respect the sanitary measures," whether French-speaking Québécois or Ultra-Orthodox, he said.

In this case, local police got a report on Saturday that there were a lot of people gathering. Saturday night marked the beginning of Simchat Torah, the last in the season of Jewish high holidays.

The event is usually marked by reading the Torah at night, and singing and dancing are a key part of the celebrations.

When police arrived to the scene in Boisbriand, they saw that hundreds of people were already gathered.

Boisbriand, like Montreal, is in a COVID-19 red zone, meaning religious gatherings are limited by law to 25 people.

"When we got there... it was clear that we needed to make an intervention," Huard said.

They often give a first warning, but "it was not a situation that we would give a warning," he said.

They called the local public health officials, who arrived on site and helped by speaking to the participants and giving out information while police dispersed the event.

"We don't want to be in a confrontation situation," said Huard. "We're really proud of the way things went."

Overall, it was "calm," he said, though one man didn't cooperate and was arrested for assaulting an officer. The officer wasn't injured.

Local police also had assistance from Quebec provincial police, they said in a news release.

In his daily press conference, Quebec Premier François Legault said Tuesday that the officers should be praised for handling a "delicate" situation well.

"There were even some people from outside Quebec," Legault said. "I know that our police officers did incredible work. They were able to disperse the crowd."

The response "was done correctly, and we avoided the worst," Legault added. "Perhaps there will be some results or infections, but it avoided the worst." 

He said he also wanted to thank whoever had called police to alert them to the situation.

Huard said that as for the question of people from outside of Quebec participating, there were some reports of car licence plates from New York, and that it turned out that some of those at the event did have permanent addresses in New York -- though it's unclear when they arrived in Quebec.

Another officer, Insp. Martin Charron, said there are people from New York who arrived in Boisbriand's Ultra-Orthodox community before the border closed in mid-March and have been in Quebec ever since.

In general, there's a lot of traffic between Hasidic and Orthodox communities in Boisbriand, Montreal, Toronto and New York, he said.

People did travel from outside Boisbriand for the Saturday event, said Huard -- and even coming from as nearby as Montreal is troubling during COVID-19.

"They moved from other red areas to come over," he said.

“There were much more people than we're used to [seeing], normally, around,” in that community, he said.

No one from outside Quebec was among the 16 people ticketed, he said.

Orthodox Jewish neighbourhoods in Brooklyn were rocked by violent overnight riots last week as people protested COVID-19 restrictions ahead of Simchat Torah. A reporter for a Jewish publication was hospitalized after being beaten during one protest, and a well-known Orthodox Jewish radio personality in Brooklyn was later arrested.

In trying to get answers from the local leaders in Boisbriand, police said they’ve had a good response.

"We always had the collaboration of the community. When we called them, they [weren't] angry, they answer the questions," said Huard.

"They're not happy, too."

In March, during the early stages of the pandemic's first wave, Boisbriand's sizable Tosh ultra-Orthodox Jewish community was placed under quarantine by public health officials after almost 40 per cent of tests conducted within the community came back positive. Public health officials at the time praised the co-operation they received from the community, who said issued guidelines were being followed closely. 

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