Religious Tree : Toronto’s Chopfest – Damned Green Cover (then why did he buy it?)
Vastu, an ancient Indian system of architecture involving home design, holds that trees shouldn’t be planted directly in front of a home’s main entrance. (Vastu is similar to Feng Shui).
North York resident wins right to move city-owned tree based on religious belief
North York resident Sanjeev Joshi says the 17.5-centimetre diameter maple tree in front of his house violates the principles of vastu. (SAMMY HUDES/TORONTO STAR / SAMMY HUDES/TORONTO STAR)
Toronto’s tree canopy may carry important economic and environmental benefits, but city council is willing to extend a maple branch when it comes to moving trees to accommodate religious beliefs.
“It was a very sad struggle for my family,” North York resident Sanjeev Joshi told the Star, following a more than yearlong fight to get approval to move a city-owned tree on his front lawn to another part of the property at his own expense.
“But my experience has brought forth the entire true glory and majesty of multicultural Canada. My story illustrates how our Canada today is probably the last bastion of true cultural diversity.”
In November, following a lengthy debate, council voted 19-7 to allow Joshi to move the tree.
The case began in April 2015, when he requested that the city remove the 17.5-centimetre-diameter Freeman maple tree entirely.
According to a report by the city’s forestry department, Joshi requested the tree’s removal to prevent future damage to his driveway by the tree’s roots and to mitigate “the negative effects on the tree’s esthetics due to the future canopy pruning to accommodate overhead wires.”
After the city’s forestry department denied his request, he appealed the decision, requesting religious accommodation under the Ontario Human Rights Code, according to the city report.
In consultation with the city’s Human Rights Office, it was determined Joshi had not established in good faith that his request warranted religious accommodation by the city.
Yet Joshi continued to argue that the position of the tree in front of the main door of his home violated his belief in vastu, which he defines as “the architectural science of harnessing nature’s energy for well-being of family.” Joshi, who’s retired, says he cited his religious belief from the beginning.
“It was a really reasonable request. He’s not somebody who doesn’t like trees,” said Councillor John Filion, who represents the area where the property is located.
“It’s just so absurd. It was such a ridiculous discussion that the guy does have religious reasons for needing to move the tree at his own expense a couple of feet to one side on his lot.”
Vastu, an ancient Hindu system of architecture involving home design, holds that trees shouldn’t be planted directly in front of a home’s main entrance in order to harness the flow of good energy into the house.
Councillor Gord Perks, who voted against the motion, said he trusted city staff’s determination that Joshi’s request didn’t meet the standards for religious accommodation.
“Anyone saying that there should be a religious exemption is ignoring the people who test our policy against human rights and religious needs,” said Perks, adding that the city receives tree removal applications “all the time.”
“This particular instance was, in my view, nothing more than that,” he said. “There’s a fairness argument here. If we have a series of tests that every Torontonian can rely on being applied equally, why does this guy get an exemption and the next person who makes an application not?”
There are about 600,000 trees on city streets in Toronto, including those on city-owned land between roadways and private property. The city, which has a goal of increasing its tree canopy to 40 per cent, maintains these trees to help grow Toronto’s urban forest, due to the ecological, recreational and health benefits of trees.
The motion at council, moved by Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker, includes a two-year guarantee for the health of the tree in question. If the tree dies following the transplant, Joshi would be required to replace it.
Alex McLeish, general manager of Kontiki Landscaping, said transplants of the type and size of tree in question have a very high success rate, adding it would cost about $1,000 to move the tree.
“A (17.5-centimetre), we wouldn’t even break a sweat,” McLeish said. “You would be in the high 90s in percentage of living. If you moved 100, I doubt you’d lose one.”
But Perks said there was “no sense in taking a risk,” no matter how small.
“The thing that you can do that best meets the city’s policy goals of having a healthy urban forest, reducing our costs and improving air quality in the city of Toronto is to leave trees where they are when they’re healthy,” he said.
Filion said his vote in favour of the transplant was the first time he had gone against a city forestry staff report, which had originally recommended against removing it.
“When the city is going out planting trees, which I’m all in favour of, maybe don’t stick it in the middle of a lot, because there are people with religious beliefs about the tree being right in front of their door,” said Filion. “Just put it off a bit to the side because people’s front doors are pretty much always in the middle of a lot.”
Filion said he opposes requests to move trees for convenience and said any suggestion that this vote set a precedent for such requests to be approved was an “absurd characterization.”
“The whole discussion was absurd,” he said. “It was like a Monty Python skit, it was so absurd. Obviously it only sets a precedent for somebody wanting to do the exact same thing. That’s not a precedent I would be concerned about.”