Quebec City mosque attack Islamophobia Montreal vigil

Being Muslim in Quebec, five years after the mosque shooting

We spoke with Muslim Quebecers on the solidarity they’ve seen across the country, but also about being ‘othered,’ the damage done by Bill 21 and the rise of the far right.

This coming Saturday will mark the five-year anniversary of one of the deadliest mass shootings in Canada. On the night of Jan. 29, 2017, 27-year-old Alexandre Bissonnette entered the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City and ruthlessly gunned down six innocent men in prayer and injured another 19, leaving behind families in mourning (including 17 children who were left fatherless) and members of Quebec’s and Canada’s Muslim community in shock. 

The police investigation would quickly reveal Bissonnette was a young man under the steady influence of far-right, Islamophobic, anti-immigrant voices, who was motivated by Justin Trudeau’s response to Donald Trump’s travel ban, and worried refugees would become a threat to his own family. Innocent and law-abiding men who had come here seeking a better life would pay the ultimate price for Bissonnette’s hate and fear of the “other.”

Five years later, and with the killer’s Supreme Court appeal a month away, what (if anything) has changed for Quebec’s and Canada’s Muslim community? 

“Five years later, do we feel safer as Muslims?” Amira Elghawaby asks. “I want to say yes, but I wouldn’t be truthful. There’s still a sense of anxiety, the London, Ontario attack that wiped out an entire family only happened six months ago, a man was stabbed to death at a Toronto mosque — there’s always that potential and that fear that you’ll be attacked just for being Muslim.”

Ottawa-based Elghawaby — a human rights advocate, past founding board member of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network and currently the Director of Programs and Outreach at the Canadian Race Relations Foundation — is hopeful but realistic. 

“I think it’s difficult to say that things have gotten better, but I do believe that after the Quebec City mosque attack, and various hate crimes across the country, there’s been more acceptance of the fact that Islamophobia and everyday discrimination against Muslims is very real.” 

Fighting prejudice

Quebec City Mayor Regis Labeaume, his wife, Sophie Grégoire and Justin Trudeau
Quebec City Mayor Regis Labeaume, his wife, Sophie Grégoire and Justin Trudeau

Montrealer Emilie Arshif, a francophone Quebecer who converted to Islam 12 years ago, remembers that night five years ago vividly. When news of the shooting broke, she and her husband immediately worried about a close family friend who married them.

“We were scared for him because he lives nearby and is always at that mosque,” she says. “He was lucky… he was delayed at the university that night and never made it.”

What Arshif says she remembers most about that confusing night was then-Quebec City mayor Régis Labeaume’s face on her TV. “He was in such shock, such disbelief, so devastated,” she says. “That image remains with me because I think many people changed their minds about Islamophobia after that night. It’s so sad that people had to die for that to happen, but I do believe the attack raised awareness. But has it really changed things? Sadly, ordinary racism and prejudice continue.”

Arshif says that when she started dating her husband, a man she calls one of the gentlest men you’ll ever meet, she had to deal with her own family’s preconceived notions. “My 90-year-old religious grandmother from a little village asked my husband so many questions, which he patiently answered, and she eventually realized how many things she thought were true about Muslims were just prejudice. The man that my husband is, and how he behaves daily, eventually changed her mind. People’s perceptions can change, but it takes time.” 

Naveed Hussain, a nurse at the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) and a teacher at the Riverside School Board’s Health department, says his day-to-day interactions in Quebec are good, and while sometimes people have questions, they don’t always come from a bad place. He, too, however, is tired of the preconceived notions.

“So many stereotypes exist,” he says. “Do I pray five times a day? No. I’m not even particularly religious. We were born Muslim and we just live our lives, like most people raised in other faiths. Some people are observant, and some aren’t. I don’t think my fiancée’s family had ever interacted with a Brown Muslim before they met me, all they knew is what they maybe saw on TV, but then they realized, ‘Hey, he speaks French, he’s fully integrated.’”

The born-and-raised Montrealer, who some may know from his popular petition in 2020 to rename Lionel-Groulx metro station to honour Oscar Peterson, says he’s embraced interculturalism as best as he could, is a proud and fully integrated Muslim Quebecer, but says he’s tired of constantly being perceived as an outsider and a threat.

“When a Journal de Montréal pundit attacked my petition, I was shocked by the number of death threats I received and the messages from people telling me to ‘go back to where I came from’,” he says. “The way some opinion pundits continue to use Islamophobic tropes as a way of retaining their readers’ interest is so divisive.” 

Dispelling myths and raising awareness 

Montreal vigil London Ontario attack Quebec Muslims
A vigil for the victims of the London, Ontario attack

It’s why Arshif believes events like Muslim Awareness Week, created in the aftermath of the deadly shooting, are important because they provide opportunities for more contact with Muslim communities, more representation and ways to normalize the existence of those who are different from the majority.

The national annual commemoration has also been designated by the federal government as the National Day of Remembrance of the Quebec City Mosque Attack and Action Against Islamophobia. In Quebec, where the massacre occurred, Premier François Legault rejected a proposal to have Jan. 29 declared a Day of Action Against Islamophobia, downplaying its existence, even though hate crimes against Muslims across the country have steadily increased in frequency and in their level of violence over the years. In fact, as a recent article for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives informs us, “in the last five years, more Muslims have been killed in targeted hate-attacks in Canada than in any other G7 country.”

“Politicians who deny that systemic racism and Islamophobia exist and who think they have the monopoly on what’s considered normal aren’t helpful,” says Arshif. “They make it easier for people to discriminate against those who are different.” 

As the mother of two young sons, she’s especially worried about their safety and how they’ll be perceived by other Quebecers. 

“Look at the alarm raised by some just because the Canadiens hockey team hired a GM with an anglophone name,” she says. “My kids have Arabic first and last names, of course I worry about how that will affect them and whether they’ll be considered full Quebecers.”

Bill 21 contributes to the stigma 

Bill 21 Quebec Muslim secularism

“The Quebec City mosque attack shocked and shattered Muslim families,” Elghawaby says, “but I think it also shocked all Canadians to see such a cold-blooded murder in a country that prides itself on being inclusive.”

She finds annual commemorations necessary. “It’s bittersweet for me,” she says. “Most Canadians have shown solidarity with our community, but at the same time the rise of far-right movements within the country is very worrisome. But we’re pushing for better policies, working with allies, addressing the hate. It’s an opportunity for all Canadians, whether personally impacted or not, to be able to stand together and say that we won’t stand for hate and discrimination.”

Elghawaby finds Bill 21 especially concerning since it targets and marginalizes Muslim women and other religious minorities. “Whenever you have a minority community that is treated as the ‘other,’ as a problem, as people who don’t ‘adapt’ to Quebec values, it’s dangerous,” she says. 

“It sends a signal that there’s something wrong with them and it’s okay to discriminate against them. Legislation like Bill 21 is in essence a license to discriminate. Hopefully, as more Quebecers understand the ramifications of such discriminatory legislation, not just for Muslims, but, overall, for Quebec society, support for it will drop. Secularism isn’t meant to erase people’s rights to practise religion and live their true selves. Both the Quebec and Canadian charters guarantee those rights in a democracy.”

Hussain tells me the Riverside board where he teaches recently missed out on an excellent and desperately needed candidate for the simple reason that she wears a hijab. “It just doesn’t make any sense that people can’t pursue their dreams and contribute to their society because of what they wear on their head.” 

Hussain’s sisters, who all work in the healthcare field, have Muslim names, he says, but don’t wear hijabs. “I can’t imagine them losing out on career opportunities [if Bill 21 applied to healthcare] and I feel so badly for those who are being limited by this legislation. I want to be more articulate, but all I can think of to say here, is ‘This really sucks!’”  

Asked about some politicians’ and people’s reticence to acknowledge Islamophobia, Elghawaby says it takes time. 

“Look at the Montreal Polytechnique massacre,” she says. “It took decades for people to admit that it was an act of misogyny and violence against women. I see this as similar. It’s why the focus should be on education. People need to understand what these forms of discrimination and oppression are. There’s a long road ahead for minority communities impacted by hate and violence, but we need to push forward together, and we need to stop electing politicians who fail to see the negative effects of divisive speech and how counterproductive it is for society.” 

“That could have been me five years ago”

Muslim Quebec mosque shooting
Quebec City, Jan. 29, 2017

Hussain says he remembers that horrific night five years ago with deep sadness. But he also remembers the resignation he felt when he heard the news. 

“Ever since 9/11 I’d been worried that something bad could happen to the Muslim community here,” he says. “There have been so many threats before, so much Muslim-bashing in Quebec media. A pig head was left at the mosque. There was constant escalation and there was never an appropriate response from police or government officials.” 

He felt the shooting was just another slap in the face for Quebec’s Muslim community. “That could have been me five years ago,” he says. “It could have been my dad. It really hit home for me. You can’t help but wonder, ‘Are we really Quebecers? Are we really part of this society?’”

Despite his frustration, Hussain considers Quebec his home, loves contributing to its future and refers to Montreal as the best city in the world. 

“I’m a proud Montrealer, a proud Quebecer, and, yes, a proud Muslim,” he says. “Religious or not, my religion is also part of who I am. I’m all those things and they’re all a part of me.” ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.