There is no safe place left anymore.
It is hard to imagine a quieter suburb than Sainte Foy and a town quainter than Quebec City. But this façade of calm and peace collapsed Sunday night when at least two masked gunmen stormed a mosque in Sainte Foy and shot dead at least six Muslims. Several others were seriously injured.
Details about the mass murder, which appears to be hate motivated, are trickling in.
Only months earlier, someone left a pig’s head and a hate-laden message at the front door of the same mosque.
Wrapped in plastic, a greeting card accompanied the pig’s head that read in French Bon appétit, or eat well. The perpetrators knew that Muslims, just like observant Jews, don’t consume pork. It was not a peace offering.
Sunday's attack is a deliberate act of violence intended to terrorise Quebec’s minority groups.
Quebec is unique in Canada and North America for its distinct cultural roots. Most Quebecers speak French as their first or only language. For decades, French-speaking Quebecers have campaigned for independence from the rest of Canada. A 1995 referendum on the future of Quebec was decided by less than a percentage point difference when 50.6% Quebecers voted not to separate.
It is not just the French language, cuisine or architecture that makes Quebec unique. Most Quebecers have strong opinions about religion. The Quiet Revolution, as it is known in Quebec, was the people’s reaction against organised religion. Thus most Quebecers are steadfast seculars and oppose any overt manifestation of religion in the public sphere. Some also campaigned to remove a crucifix that hangs in Quebec’s National Assembly.
To have a mass murder unfold in the heart of secular Canada appears a puzzle. Quebec City, a mid-sized town of half-a-million is the capital of Quebec, Canada’s second most populous province. The city had its fair share of conflicts starting with the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759 when the English and the French fought for its control.
But that was in the past. Today’s Quebec City is a sophisticated, modern town that has remained faithful to its traditions.
The city is home to Canada’s oldest institution of higher learning, Université Laval, which opened its doors in 1663. A modern university with over 35,000 students, Laval attracts brilliant minds from across Canada and the world. The city’s architecture is perhaps Europe’s farthest outpost where Château Frontenac’s stunning façades rival the very best across the Atlantic.
Why then such a ghastly act of violence descended on Quebec City?
Regrettably, this is not the first incident of mass shooting in Quebec. The worst known incident took place in Quebec’s largest city, Montreal, where a deranged man shot dead several women studying engineering at École Polytechnique.
14 women lost their lives on that fateful day in December 1989. The 25-year old murderer, Marc Lépine, was born to an Algerian immigrant and a Canadian woman.
Quebec can be a tough place for immigrants. I lived in Montreal for several years when I taught at McGill University. Immigrants are often caught between the subtle struggle between the Anglophones and Francophones. Both want to influence Quebec, and both have succeeded only temporarily.
Often, the province is governed by a separatist political party whose stated aim is to separate Quebec from Canada. In the larger struggle for an independent homeland for Francophones, immigrants become the unintended victims.
I am reminded of the ordeal of a McGill student who was detained by the police for taking photographs at a transit station. The student, a native of Montreal, was of Sri Lankan heritage and worked in my research lab at the university. I had assigned him to document commuter flows at a subway station. He carried a letter from me explaining his assignment in case someone would question him. He was still arrested and charged.
On any given day, hundreds of visitors take thousands of photographs while riding Montreal’s buses, subways, and trains. They are neither discouraged nor detained. Yet, a dark-skinned young man with a camera put the security establishment in overdrive. Months later the authorities settled the matter out of court.
Such incidents are not necessarily rare. As recently as in 2013, the then provincial government run by the separatist Parti Québécois proposed a secular charter, Bill 60, which would have, among numerous other provisions, prevented public sector employees from wearing religious gear and symbols.
Hijab wearing Muslim women, and men who wore religious headgear, e.g., Sikhs, Orthodox Jews, and observant Muslims were the direct victims of Bill 60.
Several incidents of hate and racism followed when individuals tried to forcibly remove hijab from women in malls and on public transit. The crucifix hanging in the Quebec’s National Assembly was exempted.
Muslims are not the only victims of the infrequent racism in Quebec. In April 2016, Supninder Singh Khehra, while vacationing in Quebec City, was verbally abused and physically attacked by a group of men.
The Toronto native was trying to hail a cab in Quebec City when a group of young men in a car first hurled insults at him and then attacked him. The perpetrators ran away when the police arrived at the scene.
“I’m really worried about the safety and wellbeing of young kids of my community who wear turbans,” Mr Khehra told a news reporter.
Mr Khehra believed that he was attacked because of his race, colour, and the headgear. The Quebec police, however, didn’t consider it a hate crime.
The video of the attack is available online and leaves little to the imagination. It was a hate crime and ignoring it would only encourage bigots. One of the attackers, Gabriel Royer-Tremblay, was found guilty and sentenced to 10 months.
Mohammed Yangui, president of the Quebec City mosque, confirmed that the remains of the victims were already in the city’s morgue. There could be more fatalities as the number of injured is large. For now, at least six families in Quebec City, have lost a loved one in an act of terror.
It is hard to say what the future holds for the minorities in North America. American President, Donald Trump, has restricted nationals from seven Muslim-dominated countries from visiting the United States. Mr Trump is about to build a wall with Mexico. The space and welcome for refugees are fast shrinking in Mr Trump’s America.
Canada, despite the carnage in Quebec City, remains a welcoming place for refugees. Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, pledged to keep Canada’s doors open to victims of war and violence.
“To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength,” he wrote in a tweet.
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