Anyone entering Arieh Perecowicz’s taxi in Montreal quickly knows what’s close to the man’s heart. At various places around the dashboard, he’s posted photos of his family, religious artifacts, a couple of flags and a Remembrance Day poppy.
The items have never sparked a customer complaint or interfered with his work, the 65-year-old cabbie says.
But it did provoke a series of tickets from Montreal’s taxi agency, which have resulted in a court battle that could test the line between personal and public space.
After successfully navigating through the chaos of Montreal’s streets for four decades, Mr. Perecowicz is steering into trickier territory: Whether a taxi can also be a vehicle for personal and religious expression.
Mr. Perecowicz received six tickets for a total of $1,400 from the Bureau du taxi, a municipal agency whose inspectors ordered the cabbie to remove the offending items. Mr. Perecowicz is instead fighting the tickets and heads to municipal court next week arguing the authorities are violating his Charter rights.
“In 43 years, no one has said they were offended or opened the door to take another taxi,” he says.
Mr. Perecowicz says he’s not especially religious, but he’s comforted by having articles of his Jewish faith in the car, including photos of the late Lubavitcher spiritual leader and two mezuzahs affixed to the car frame between the front and back doors.
“I am secular but I do have roots and a culture,” he said. “These items mean something to me and that’s why I’ve always had them in my car.”
As for the photos of his wife, daughter and son, Mr. Perecowicz says he spends 15 hours a day in his cab. “What’s the point of putting photos in an album? I don’t have time to look in an album. I’m away from home all day. This is my home.”
Mr. Perecowicz can’t afford a lawyer and is representing himself in court next week. But he has been given support by the Quebec Jewish Congress, which says the case is an important test of Charter rights.
“This is an issue of freedom of religious expression,” said Abby Shawn, a human-rights lawyer with the congress. “This is the only case we know of where the taxi bureau has requested a taxi driver to remove his religious icons. It [the bylaw] has been applied in a very discriminatory fashion.”
Mr. Perecowicz is being prosecuted under Section 98 of Montreal’s taxi bylaw, which says cabbies can’t have objects or inscriptions in their cabs that are “not required for the taxi to be in service.”
Mr. Perecowicz, who has also filed a complaint with the Quebec Human Rights Commission, notes he starting receiving tickets only days after speaking out in the media in 2006 to complain that the taxi bureau was failing to crack down on unlicensed cabs.
His latest campaign is gaining sympathy from fellow cabbies in a city where it’s not uncommon to see everything from air fresheners to rosary beads and crucifixes dangling from cabs’ rearview mirrors, as well as family snaps on the dashboard.
“There are a lot more important things to look after than whether someone has a photo in his taxi,” said Dory Saliba, president of Coop de Taxi de Montréal.