In October 2015, the City of Toronto’s Yonge-Dundas Square (YDS) Board of Management denied Voices Of The Nations (VOTN) its right to continue using Yonge-Dundas Square for its annual musical festival.
VOTN describes its mission as “to provide a venue and unite the various denominations, cultures and the outstanding talents within the Christian community” and “to embrace and celebrate the wonderful diversity in the city.” Held the first weekend in August, this annual festival showcases the talents of numerous performing groups and artists from a broad cross-section of the Christian community.
Natalie Belman, the Manager of Events for Yonge-Dundas Square told VOTN that their festival had violated the YDS policy against “proselytizing”:
Well it doesn’t matter if it’s speaking or singing. Either way, if you’re praising Jesus or “praise the Lord” and “there’s no God like Jehovah,” that type of thing, that’s proselytizing.
The Justice Centre sent a legal warning letter to the YDS Board, and later gave an oral presentation before it, explaining that the decision to ban VOTN violated freedom of religion and freedom of expression as protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
At its meeting on December 11, 2015, the Board of Management responded by directing that YDS staff communicate with VOTN to work out a cooperative arrangement to permit VOTN’s Christian 2016 music festival to proceed in Yonge-Dundas Square.
In the discussions that followed, the Justice Centre asserted VOTN’s rights and freedom to have its 2016 festival as it desired. Eventually, a cooperative arrangement and understanding was reached between YDS staff and VOTN that allows VOTN’s 2016 concert to take place in Yonge-Dundas Square and which respects VOTN’s freedom to express and share its religious beliefs.
On February 4, 2016, the YDS Board of Management reversed its decision to ban VOTN from Yonge-Dundas Square. The Board directed that a permit be granted to VOTN to host its annual concert in Yonge-Dundas Square on August 6, 2016.
The YDS policies, including its policy against “proselytizing”, are currently under review. The YDS Board has agreed to consider the Justice Centre’s submissions that the prohibition against “proselytizing” is unconstitutional as it undertakes its policy review.
“We are glad that YDS has reversed its decision and has recognized our freedom to have a Christian concert in Yonge-Dundas Square to praise Jesus and celebrate our Christian beliefs as we have done before,” said Paresh (Peter) Ruparelia, founder of VOTN.
“The YDS decision to permit VOTN to host its Christian concert in Yonge-Dundas Square affirms the freedom of all groups to use the public square and host events that express diverse viewpoints and beliefs,” stated Marty Moore, a Justice Centre lawyer who represented VOTN. “This freedom is a true and essential value in a free and democratic society.”