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19 voters quash Muslim-run cemetery in Saint-Apollinaire, Que.

Count shows 19 votes against, 16 votes in favour after petition forced referendum on rezoning

Momamed Kesri

Mohamed Kesri from the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre said blocking the cemetery because it's Muslim amounts to discrimination. (Radio-Canada)

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Residents of Saint-Apollinaire, Que., voted against a proposed Muslim-run cemetery in their town Sunday.

The referendum saw 36 people vote on whether a zoning change would be allowed so that a new cemetery could exist in a wooded area on the outskirts of the town. 

The final tally showed 19 votes were against the project, 16 votes in favour and one rejected ballot.

Mohamed Kesri, who was overseeing the Muslim-run cemetery project, said the outcome could now lead to a complaint of discrimination with the Quebec's human rights commission.

He added that he's disappointed a project that would benefit thousands could be blocked by 19 people.

"This is not a referendum on whether the garbage should be collected in the morning or in the afternoon. This is an important request," he said. 

muslim cemetery

Voters refused to speak with media and police were nearby in case tensions flared. (Radio-Canada)

Only 49 people in the 6,400-person town, located 35 kilometres southwest of Quebec City, were able to vote in the referendum because they lived in the vicinity of the proposed site and had registered to vote.

Seventy people were eligible to register.

Fear steered voters, says mayor

The citizen-led referendum was forced when 40 people signed a petition against the project in April. 

Tensions have been running high in the weeks leading up to the referendum.

There was a noticeable police presence near the voting offices Sunday and voters were unwilling to speak with media.

'They base their decisions on hearsay.' - Mayor Bernard Ouellet said after the vote

The mayor of Saint-Apollinaire, Bernard Ouellet, said he's convinced fear steered voters.

"They don't know these people so they base their decisions on hearsay," Ouellet said.

Bernard Ouellet

Bernard Ouellet, the mayor of Saint-Apollinaire said one of the main arguments for the 'no' side was the call for a non-denominational cemetery. (Radio-Canada)

The mayor was in favour of the project and had once said he believed his town's reputation would be tarnished if the "no" side won. 

He said when the mosque's leaders first came to him with the proposal he "didn't think it would bother anyone."

Opponents went door-to-door

Opponents to the project went door-to-door gathering signatures in the spring to force a referendum on the zoning change.

One of those opponents was Sunny Létourneau, a member of a group called the association for alternatives.

Sunny Létourneau

Sunny Létourneau did not live close enough to the proposed site for the cemetery to vote in the referendum, but is opposed to the project. (Radio-Canada)

She is in favour of non-denominational cemeteries, and says she is equally opposed to cemeteries designated for Catholics, which are common across the province.

"We need cemeteries that welcome everybody, no matter their religion, where they're from, their skin colour, their culture. You have to think about that because in 20 years it's going to be a problem," she said.

Létourneau said she didn't want to comment on the outcome of the vote when contacted after the "no" side won.

Ouellet dismissed the main argument made by opponents of rezoning the land — which was that a non-denominational cemetery should be favoured over a Muslim-run one. 

He said a non-denominational cemetery could have been added to the rezoned land, along with the Muslim-run one, if people had only voted in favour of rezoning.  

Project led by Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre

The project had been in the works since 2016 and was spearheaded by the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre, the mosque which was the site of the shooting rampage in January, which killed six men. 

The centre wanted to buy 60,000 square feet of land in a wooded area near the Harmonia funeral home for the cemetery, located on the outskirts of the town.

The centre was ready to invest $215,000 into their project.

The reason they wanted a Muslim-run cemetery is because traditions carried out in other cemeteries conflict with their beliefs, such as cremation.

Quebec City Mayor Régis Labeaume is expected to comment on the outcome Monday.

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