One employee of the city of Montreal’s fire department has been suspended and the city has launched an internal investigation after fire prevention officers ordered four Peel St. establishments to clear their packed terrasses of clients on the first night of Grand Prix weekend for fire code breaches.

Luc Rabouin, chair of the city’s executive committee, apologized to restaurant owners and their clients Monday for the way the Service de securité d’incendie de Montréal (SIM) handled the situation.

“We cannot decide the operations of the SIM as elected officials, but sincerely, I think there are other ways to be sure (the rules) are enforced and coming during the rush hour doesn’t seem to be the best idea,” he said at a news conference. “We are very sorry about that. It’s not the image we want to promote for Montreal and it’s not the way we work with the businesses in general.”

Rabouin did not fault the fire department for enforcing safety rules — the canopies over the terrasses were less than three metres from the buildings and so they were indeed in violation of the fire prevention rules — but he said enforcement of those rules should have taken place at another time.

Sandra Ferreira, director of operations of Ferreira Café, posted an emotional video after her restaurant’s terrasse was surrounded by a dozen SIM fire prevention officers and police officers at 9 p.m. Friday. She was ordered to empty the terrasse immediately, with customers forced to leave in the middle of their meals. Her video on Instagram has been liked by more than 33,000 people, and Rabouin admitted the controversy has hurt Montreal’s reputation.

“It was a shock for the business owners, a shock for us, a shock for their clientele and obviously the image of Montreal was hurt, so we find it unacceptable what happened,” Rabouin said.

The businesses have removed the canopies from their terrasses for the time being. On Monday morning, Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante, who is also the mayor of the downtown borough of Ville-Marie, met with assistant director general Martin Prud’homme, who is in charge of public safety, and with members of the fire department to conduct a postmortem of Friday’s events.

In a radio interview before that meeting Monday, Plante said there was a “lack of communication” between the fire department and her borough.

“The fire department passed by a few days before to say certain terrasses were not to code and they demanded adjustments,” Plante told radio 98.5 host Paul Arcand. “They then went by Friday night. But in the meantime, the borough was not informed. One of the things we do at the borough is find solutions … You can’t mess around with safety, but Grand Prix weekend is a super important weekend for the whole city of Montreal, including Peel St. and Crescent St. So how is it that firefighters went by Friday night and said ‘Well, it’s not to code. Take it all down’?”

Rabouin and other city officials met the business owners for more than an hour Monday to discuss the situation. The businesses have been directed to work with Ville-Marie borough officials to find a way to re-install the canopies without breaching fire safety rules.

“We’ve asked them for 24 hours to check with the borough to do whatever is possible to ensure that for the rest of the summer they can have terrasses, they can have canopies, but that it be done in a safe manner to respect the norms.”

The official opposition at city hall has called for a special meeting of city council to allow opposition counsellors to question the fire department and borough authorities about the sequence of events leading up to the forced shutdowns of the terrasses on one of the busiest tourist weekends of the year.

“How is it Ferreira Café and its neighbours were able to obtain permits from the borough of Ville-Marie if their terrasses did not conform” to fire code regulations? Ensemble Montréal asked in a statement Monday. “Why did the (fire prevention service) conduct such an operation at 9 p.m. rather than during the days before the festivities?

“Were the mayor and her cabinet aware of the operations in Ville-Marie?”

The terrasses along Peel St. that were closed by the Montreal fire inspectors on Friday. They opened again after the tents were taken down.Photo by Pierre Obendrauf /Montreal Gazette

Fire department officials have said the restaurants were informed a week earlier that the tents erected to protect their terrasses were in violation of the fire code. The restaurants say they received contradictory information from the city, and were told they had “special permission” to keep the tents as they were.

“The official opposition … wants explanations from the fire department and the borough of Ville-Marie concerning the fiasco surrounding the shutdowns of many terrasses on Peel St. during Grand Prix festivities,” Ensemble Montréal said.

“This meeting will be crucial to guarantee the accountability of the city of Montreal and to ensure our city will never again be so discredited … The events of Friday night have shaken the population of Montreal and tarnished the image of this city.

“Rather than a postmortem held behind closed doors, the Plante administration must take an approach that allows all citizens to know the truth.”

Alain Creton, owner of Chez Alexandre and president of the Peel St. business owners association, said Monday he is pleased the city is taking the issue seriously.

He said he and the other Peel St. merchants got permits from the Ville-Marie borough to have terrasses with canopies that can be closed to protect clients from dust and rain. These opened in early May, but after their first week of operations, borough officials informed them their terrasses extended too far into the street and were impeding traffic. So they moved them closer to the sidewalk. Then, about a week before the Grand Prix, fire prevention officers informed them the tents were now too close to the buildings and posed a fire hazard.

The restaurant owners tried to appeal to borough officials but could get no clear answers, Creton said. So they asked Glenn Castanheira, president of the downtown merchants’ association, to straighten things out. According to Creton, Castanheira spoke to people at the borough and the fire department and then assured the merchants they could leave their terrasses and canopies where they were until after Grand Prix weekend, after which they would have to adjust them to meet the fire department’s demands.

“He said, ‘They are going to leave you in peace until after the Grand Prix.’ This is what Glenn Castanheira told us,” Creton said.

Castanheira, for his part, told The Gazette in a text: “We received confirmation from the borough that the borough would tolerate the terrasse(s) as is. The SIM inspectors acted alone.”

Julien Hénault-Ratelle, economic development critic for Ensemble Montréal, said businesses in Montreal need a single office — a “guichet unique” — where they can get answers to questions about permits and other procedures. “It’s difficult for business owners to face all of the bureaucracy of the city of Montreal. We have the city, we have different boroughs, the (rules) are different from one borough to another, all of the services don’t talk to each other. If we want to make doing business easy in Montreal, a guichet unique would be a very good idea.”