Two weeks ago, historian, Dawson College professor and Parti Québécois (PQ) candidate Frédéric Bastien posted on social media that, according to “his sources,” Montreal police had to intervene at the Islamic Centre of Quebec (ICQ) in Ville Saint-Laurent on Monday, May 11, to put an end to an illegal religious ceremony that violated COVID-19 pandemic rules. Eleven fines were issued against the mosque, according to him.
“A police officer I spoke to told me, ‘We thought we had taken care of the problem, but it’s not the case,’” he wrote.
Frédéric Bastien went on to say, “It would appear that in certain religious communities, the authorities’ message on COVID-19 is simply not registering.”
“The COVID crisis is showing us that certain religious groups, especially Jewish Orthodox and certain Muslim communities, are more prone to such behaviour. Is it surprising? With Canadian multiculturism, we encourage and reinforce particularisms. By this very fact we undermine the cohesion of society, so essential when the nation faces collective danger and when everyone’s salvation depends on everyone’s individual behaviour. There is a reflection to be had on the subject and we will have to modify certain things when we start to emerge from this crisis.”
To accompany his post, Frédéric Bastien included a picture of the mosque’s exterior, with two visible SPVM police cars parked out front.
Legitimate criticism or ideologically motivated bias?
At first glance — unrelated multiculturism rants aside — there isn’t anything necessarily wrong about a concerned citizen sharing his frustration about people disrespecting the government’s confinement measures. We’ve all seen our fair share of religious groups around the world openly defying social distancing rules and insisting on gathering in churches, synagogues and mosques.
One, of course, could (and should) argue that this is not a problem limited to religious groups. A quick drive by any major Montreal park on any given sunny day will net you far more people ignoring the rules. But these folks tend to be more interested in drinking beer and hanging with friends than reciting the Torah or kneeling in front of a Muslim prayer mat, so they incite far less suspicion and far more leniency from some.
The only problem with Bastien’s statement? None of it was true. Even the image he used had nothing to do with the May 11 incident, but was from January of 2017 when police were at the mosque — not to hand out fines, but to offer their protection following the Quebec City mosque massacre by Alexandre Bissonnette. There is something particularly distasteful about using an image from such a dark moment in Quebec’s history to illustrate a fake event aimed at maligning a community that has already seen and continues to see its fair share of racism and discrimination.
No interest in the truth
Three days after Bastien’s post, Lamine Foura, an Algerian-Quebecer who works as an engineer at Bombardier and is also the founder of Medias Maghreb, a local news outlet for the Maghrebi community, called the SPVM to verify the events. He was informed that “no violation was found to have taken place and no fine was given.” He let Frédéric Bastien know on social media. No acknowledgement whatsoever.
The following day, May 15, Journal Métro published an article also confirming that no fines had been issued, citing SPVM spokesperson André Durocher who called it a “non-event.” Bastien’s post had predictably elicited its share of hateful Islamophobic comments. “When we write things,” said officer Durocher, “perhaps verify that they are truthful.” Crickets from Frédéric Bastien following that publication, too.
Finally, last Wednesday, May 20 — more than a week after posting his initial accusation and being corrected, and five days after Journal Métro published its article contradicting his post — Bastien issued a mea culpa of sorts on his Facebook page. He admitted that he had reacted too quickly, “checked his sources again” (we’re never told who “those sources” are) and said that, while there was an intervention, no fines had been issued, only a warning.
He also admitted to using an old photo that had nothing to do with the event at hand, and which he did not own the copyright to. He ended his mea culpa by promising to “be more careful in the future.” No apologies to the Muslim community unfairly targeted and — most importantly — no clarifications about why no fines were issued. Let me repeat this point again because it’s an important one: no fines were issued because no laws were broken.
The week before Frédéric Bastien wrote that post, and the week following, anti-confinement protests took place with hundreds of people gathered in Montreal and in Quebec City. Bastien didn’t seem too interested in either of them. I know because I checked his social media and there was no mention of these events, which flew in the face of social gathering rules. Were double standards at play here, or was it just coincidence? I’ll let you be the judge.
No fines issued by the SPVM
Speaking with Moin Waheed, part of management and the board of directors for the Islamic Centre of Quebec, only validated Foura’s findings and subsequent reports by Journal Métro.
“Prayer services have been suspended at the mosque for well over a month,” he told me. “We suspended them even before the government announced their measures.”
Waheed was there the day police officers showed up to investigate a possible illegal religious service.
“They found nothing because nothing was going on,” he says. “Our mosque is a large, three-floor structure that also serves as a community centre and there were about eight to ten people spread out across the building, tending to a variety of tasks. Everyone was wearing masks and gloves and we were respecting social distancing.”
The mosque may not currently be open for services, but during the pandemic it has been organizing and distributing food baskets for the community and tending to the funeral rites of deceased members before they are buried.
“All of a sudden, five police cars show up out of the blue and 10 or 11 police officers tell us to shut everything down because we’re holding an illegal assembly,” says Waheed. “We said, ‘What proof do you have of that?’ We urged them to enter the mosque and see for themselves, but they didn’t want to because they said they were worried about Coronavirus.”
When asked about Bastien’s statements that the mosque received 11 fines for breaking the social distancing rules, Waheed is categorical.
“Our centre has never received any tickets from the SPVM ever. We’ve always cooperated with the government and we have no idea who called the police on us.”
Waheed says that the hardest part of this fake news making the rounds was the criticism they received from their own Muslim community who were worried that this was true and made them all look bad.
“I think that it was a very unfair thing [for Bastien] to claim,” he says. “He hasn’t reached out to apologize to us or detract his statements, and I can assure you that our lawyers are looking into it.”
Sullying a community’s reputation
Bastien’s deliberate vagueness in his non-apology isn’t by accident. It allows for him to walk away unscathed without offering any real amends, while continuing to obscure the truth and peddle even more anti-religious hate. As seen in the comments under his Facebook apology, and in a public pro-secularism Facebook group Vive le Québec laïque, his vague apology has led people to conclude that the mosque wasn’t fined because it didn’t do anything wrong, but because exemptions are made for religious groups. In fact, hard data seems to indicate that minority groups are usually the ones targeted and negatively affected the most by COVID measures.
His Facebook post was also shared in its entirety as legitimate news by Les Manchettes, an alternative media site that says it “makes room for the truth” and lists itself alongside far-right news site Rebel News.
It’s deeply irresponsible to share unsubstantiated rumours about a religious community choosing to defy social distancing orders during a pandemic and then offering a second-rate non-apology that leaves enough questionable details in it so it continues to taint your target, yet absolves you of any defamation charges.
On a crusade against religion
This isn’t the first time Frédéric Bastien has taken on religious groups. In March of this year, while attempting to promote further tightening Bill 21, Quebec’s secularism legislation, he argued that Muslim parents had declared under oath that their children had repeatedly suffered religious pressure and proselytism in school from teachers in 2017-2018. However, a Journal de Québec investigation revealed there were no documented cases of religious proselytism by a teacher wearing religious symbols in Quebec public schools, according to the commissions scolaires de Québec (CSQ). One minor and unrelated complaint had been filed since 2016, which was quickly settled.
I’ll play devil’s advocate. Could attempts at proselytism have taken place in Quebec schools, without any official complaints lodged? Perhaps, but there’s no actual proof this has happened, and even if it had, proselytism is already illegal in Quebec. Quebec is and has been secular for a long time now. Bastien continuously cherry-picking what to be offended by, however, seems to indicate an obsession with religion and religious communities.
It’s ironic that while Frédéric Bastien filed a formal complaint against Court of Appeal Chief Justice Hesler, accusing her of political bias while she was hearing the first legal challenge against Bill 21, he isn’t doing a very good job of hiding his own bias. Her subsequent retirement ended that complaint, but Bastien recently announced that he wants to pursue it in federal courts.
Two weeks after he initially posted that fake piece of news, one week after two articles questioned the veracity of countless points in that accusation, a week after he issued his barely passable apology, his tweet accusing the mosque of violating social distancing rules remains on Twitter for all to see. No retraction, no apology, no explanation, nothing. It’s as if the truth doesn’t even matter.
Why the focus on him?
I initially debated writing about this. In the context of so much going on in Quebec and around the world as we fight a pandemic that still poses a grave danger to us all, why does it matter that Bastien gets called out? Why should I waste valuable column space devoting it to a minor political player who barely has 4 per cent support in a party that’s currently in third position with approximately 16 per cent of voter intention in Quebec.
Because what we tolerate and allow to seep into the public discourse matters. Because he’s accusing a religious group of expecting (and receiving) preferential treatment (unreasonable accommodations, anyone?) from authorities, stoking intolerance and hate. Because he teaches history to kids in a public institution. Because he’s aspiring to lead a political party that played an instrumental role in Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, a part of our collective history we should be proud of, which gave way to an incredible resurgence of national pride in the French language and culture.
As an allophone who primarily works in English, I can assure you that sense of pride is not exclusively felt by the French-speaking majority. Many of us — regardless of whether we aspire to Quebec independence or a strong Quebec within Canada — respect and appreciate the inclusion that the Parti Québécois and the sovereigntist movement were founded on. Bastien’s barely concealed xenophobia that deliberately chooses to attack what’s different and what doesn’t adhere to his own idea of Quebec isn’t it. The PQ deserves and should aspire to better candidates. His students at Dawson deserve better. Everyone who believes in and dreams of an independent Quebec deserves better. And everyone who lives in and contributes to and calls this place home — regardless of political affiliations or ethnic and religious ties — does, too.
“My parents came from Pakistan for a better life,” says Waheed. “I was born here and it’s really sad to see that racism is still alive. Take the time to meet us. Don’t make assumptions about us and spread lies.”
Frédéric Bastien has the right to support and defend Bill 21. But he doesn’t have the right to invent stories and carelessly malign communities already facing racism and discrimination. He doesn’t have the right to share fake news and not even apologize to his victims afterwards.
And even if he has about the same chance as I currently do of becoming the next leader of the PQ party, it matters that his lies are not tolerated because lies that marginalize and scapegoat minorities do real damage. Public debates and what we choose to focus on and how we choose to debate our differences as a community matter.
As Fabrice Vil, who was on Tout le Monde en Parle this past Sunday advocating for asylum seekers fighting in the COVID frontlines and a unified Quebec, said, “Je pense que les histoires qu’on se raconte façonnent qui nous sommes.”
The stories that we share shape who we are.
This is primordial. What we tell ourselves and each other, what we choose to focus on and tolerate, and how we historically evolve as a society depends on the public and political discourse that we engage in.
It’s not unreasonable to expect that a history teacher — of all people — should understand that.
Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.
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