In the Malton neighbourhood, diversity is a force that often unites the community. But controversy over a proposed crematorium now threatens the cultural balancing act its residents live out every day.
Two years ago, Benisasia funeral home filed a rezoning application with the city to accommodate the desires of its particular clientele.
“Ninety-eight per cent of our clients are South Asian,” says spokesperson Jyoti Johal. “There’s a huge need for cremation.”
But Johal says the centuries-old last rites traditions of her Hindu and Sikh clients can’t be carried out on the premises without a crematorium. The nearest one, in a Catholic facility, does not allow the various religious ceremonies required before and after the cremation.
“So families have to drive about a half an hour from the funeral home to the nearest crematorium,” she says. “The entire procession, with families grieving, sometimes has to go on the highway to get there.”
But neighbours of the proposed crematorium site on Derry Rd., next to the existing funeral home — a Legion hall in a previous life — fear dangerous toxins will be released in an area with air that’s already polluted by heavy vehicle and air traffic.
“It’s in my backyard, really,” says Charles Barclay, who lives on Justine Dr. “My aunt, who’s 96, she lives with us. She’s lived in Malton all her life. Our main concern is the emission into the atmosphere. The toxic material contains carcinogens, particulate matter.”
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The proposed site is about 60 metres from the nearest homes and close to Mimico Creek and an adjacent greenfield along Derry Rd.
Barclay and his wife are part of a neighbourhood committee that earlier this month rented buses to travel to Mississauga City Hall. Dozens of residents turned up at a planning committee meeting to protest the crematorium plan.
Some members of Malton’s South Asian community wonder if other factors are motivating the opposition.
“They don’t understand our values,” says Gurmail Singh, director of the South Asian Seniors Association in Malton, saying that opposition is due to “cultural reasons.” He says his group is just one of many supporting it.
Singh says the two Mississauga crematoriums being used now are closer to homes than the one proposed.
The same is true of crematoriums located at many cemeteries across the GTA, Johal points out. But she’s more cautious about attributing the opposition to cultural intolerance.
“I would feel the same way if I was them — ‘Oh my God, a crematorium is being built in my backyard.’ But the technology of the equipment today guarantees the emission of pollutants is very, very minimal. It doesn’t even compare to vehicle emissions. It’s just the perception of a crematorium nearby.”
Barclay tackles the cultural issue head on. “We’ve gone to the South Asian seniors club here in Malton,” he says. “Once they’ve got it in their minds it’s very hard to change these people. We’re not against cremation, but not in a residential area.”
He says the issue has brought his non-South Asian and South Asian neighbours closer together. “No one wants this. If I have a Hindu neighbour that’s having a wedding in their backyard, they would have to stop and grieve when a cremation takes place next door. And no one wants the pollution.”
City council has postponed dealing with the issue, as the area’s Ward 5 seat was vacant until last week’s byelection. Some members want to wait for changes to provincial legislation expected in July. There’s recognition that burial space is limited, and as the tradition becomes more and more expensive many people are turning to cremation. Current law allows crematoriums only in cemeteries, but that restriction will soon be removed.
Crombie has stated she does not support the proposed site, but she wants to work with both sides on a solution.
Councillor George Carlson says it’s not a matter of one culture trumping another.
“I think environmental issues and planning transcend all cultures. I think an appropriate distance would be about one kilometer away from residences. We need to find an appropriate location.”
As for the cultural issues, Carlson says it’s essentially a psychological difference. One group’s culture has been comfortable with cremating bodies in public spaces for centuries.
“Things are changing. There’s a huge demand for this. But the idea of people being cremated right next to your home — it’s even a tough one for me.”