Quebecers 'hope for a better future' on 5th anniversary of deadly mosque attack

Five years have passed since a deadly mosque attack in Quebec City claimed the lives of six people, but survivors and community leaders say they are still living with the impact of the tragedy and the problems of Islamophobia and racism that led to it.

Ceremonies took place in Quebec City and Montreal on Saturday evening

Commemorative events marking the fifth anniversary of the Quebec City mosque attack came to a head Saturday. The six men who died in the mass shooting are, clockwise from top left, Mamadou Tanou Barry, Azzeddine Soufiane, Abdelkrim Hassane, Ibrahima Barry, Aboubaker Thabti and Khaled Belkacemi. (CBC)

Five years have passed since a deadly mosque attack in Quebec City claimed the lives of six people, but survivors and community leaders say they are still living with the impact of the tragedy and the problems of Islamophobia that led to it.

Aymen Derbali, one of the survivors, spoke at a solemn ceremony organized Saturday outside the mosque. He was paralyzed from the chest down when a shooter opened fire in the city's Islamic Cultural Centre in the Sainte-Foy neighbourhood on Jan. 29, 2017, killing six and injuring 19. 

"This terrorist attack was the result of Islamophobia … it still exists today," said Derbali.

Derbali says everyone has a responsibility to denounce hatred and Islamophobia to ensure that similar events never happen.

"We hope for a better future for our children," he said.

The names of the six men who died in the 2017 attack are immortalized in stone near the mosque in Quebec City. The leaves linking the plinths are based on maple and elm leaves collected from the grounds of the site, and stylized in the artistic traditions of the mens' birth countries (Courtesy of Quebec City)

Hakim Chambaz, another survivor, says he's still learning to cope with the horrors he saw that night. 

"The scenes of terror that we witnessed will always accompany us in our daily lives," he said, pausing mid-sentence for several seconds to compose himself.

Calls to toughen gun control, end Islamophobia

The event in Quebec City was the most high-profile of several scheduled across Canada to honour the sombre anniversary, as well as the first National Day of Remembrance of the Quebec City Mosque Attack and Action Against Islamophobia, which was proclaimed last April.

Quebec Premier François Legault and Quebec City Mayor Bruno Marchand were among other dignitaries who attended; both noted the importance of coming together to live in harmony. 

"It's together that we will build the Quebec of tomorrow," Legault said. 

Quebec Premier Francois Legault expressed his support for the relatives of the victims and the Muslim community. (The Canadian Press)

In a series of events held mainly online this week due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Muslim community called for more government action to fight Islamophobia, including changing parts of Quebec's controversial secularism law, known as Bill 21, and toughening Canada's gun control laws.

Boufeldja Benabdallah, who spoke at Saturday's ceremony, said earlier this week that Legault's refusal to acknowledge Islamophobia in the province is hindering progress in Quebec.

"In Quebec, our premier does not acknowledge systemic racism or Islamophobia as existing," said Benabdallah, the co-founder of the mosque where the tragedy took place. 

"We need to take action, and action is the fight against discrimination and systemic racism; it is the fight against guns that kill our children, our adults."

Denouncing Quebec's secularist law

Mamadou Tanou Barry, Ibrahima Barry, Khaled Belkacemi, Abdelkrim Hassane, Azzeddine Soufiane and Aboubaker Thabti were gunned down shortly after evening prayers had ended at the mosque.

"Today, we pay tribute to the victims of this hateful act of terror, who were senselessly killed at the hands of bigotry, Islamophobia, and racism," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a statement Saturday.

On Friday, the federal government announced its intention to appoint a special representative on combating Islamophobia.

But Nusaiba Al-Azem, vice-chair of the London Muslim Mosque, says she wants more concrete government action, saying she's tired of empty promises after tragedy. 

Nusaiba Al-Azem of the London, Ont., mosque says she wants more concrete government action to fight Islamophobia, including changes to Quebec's controversial secularist law. (The Canadian Press)

"Seven months ago, a family in my hometown took an evening stroll to escape the reality of COVID, only to confront the reality of Islamophobia," she said, referring to another targeted, deadly attack against a Muslim family in London, Ont.

"Islamophobia doesn't start with a man shooting at a mosque — it starts in the classroom, in the workplace, on the streets, at the dinner table and in the legislature," she says. 

Al-Azem came out against Bill 21, which bars public servants "in positions of authority" from the wearing of religious symbols, including the hijab.

"A law regulating religious symbols impacts more than what people wear to work — it impacts belonging," she said. 

A vigil also took place in Montreal on Saturday evening at Parc Metro station, in the city's Parc-Extension neighbourhood.

A crowd of supporters held candles and several speakers from the Muslim community braved the cold to call for change. 

Montrealers hold candles and listen to speakers during a commemorative vigil held in Montreal. (The Canadian Press)

"Our presence here today is extremely important," said Ehab Lotayef. "People from all walks of life coming together to say that we remember, but more importantly, to say that we will work together … to make this country a better place."

Lotayef — co-founder and former president of Muslim Awareness Week, the organizer of the vigil — also denounced Bill 21. 

"We call for a society where the Charter of Human Rights is respected and strengthened, not weakened to pass laws that discriminate [against] people," said Lotayef. 

'Islamophobia has claimed more victims' since 2017

In Ottawa, organizers of an in-person vigil commemorating the victims moved the event online, citing safety concerns arising out of the presence of a convoy protesting vaccine mandates in Ottawa on Saturday.

The National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) has launched a campaign asking people to wear green squares to show their solidarity with the victims of the attack and to denounce Islamophobia. Green represents the colour of the carpets of the Quebec City mosque, where the victims last stood to pray. 

WATCH | Green square campaign raise awareness about Islamophobia: 

Green Square Campaign raises awareness on 5th anniversary of Quebec mosque shooting

1 year ago
Duration 2:30
In the week leading up to Jan. 29, the Green Square Campaign honours the victims and survivors of the Quebec City mosque attack. Organizers are also working to raise awareness about Islamophobia.

As part of the campaign, Montreal's Samuel de Champlain Bridge, along with a number of buildings across Canada, will be lit in green on Saturday night.

"Islamophobia has claimed more victims since that night," Lina El Bakr, Quebec Advocacy Officer at the NCCM, said in a release in reference to the mosque attack.

"There is no doubt that we as a country have our work cut out for us. We have heard our elected leaders denounce the violence Canadian Muslims have endured, but action has been slow and piecemeal. It is time for us all to go beyond words and take action."

Moving forward

Since the attack, the Islamic Cultural Centre has undergone extensive upgrades to ensure Muslim worshippers feel safe inside.

The mosque's exterior wall facing the street has been reinforced, with more concrete and smaller windows, to guard against someone trying to ram the building with a truck. Security cameras also face all the entrances. 

Six vibrant portraits of the men killed in the attack are also adorning the walls of the mosque this weekend to honour their humanity.

WATCH | Helping worshippers heal after tragedy: 

See the newly renovated Quebec City mosque that makes worshippers safer and helps them 'turn the page'

1 year ago
Duration 2:51
The former president of the Islamic Cultural Centre gives a tour of the newly renovated mosque that was the site of a deadly attack five years ago.

The portraits were created by Toronto-based artist and former Montrealer Aquil Virani. He said his intention was to portray the humanity of the six men, to help them be remembered for how they lived rather than just how they died.

"They were real people with real lives, real families and real dreams," he said. 

While Virani knows his portraits cannot undo the trauma and the violence the families have suffered, he hopes that seeing the faces of their loved ones painted with care will bring them a measure of peace.

"I'm hoping that the portraits can be a really small gesture, that for a minute, the families feel like others care. That others agree that this shouldn't have happened."

WATCH | Artist honours the six men killed by painting a portrait of each:

‘They were real people with real lives, real families, real dreams.’

1 year ago
Duration 2:11
Visual artist, Aquil Virani, spent over two years painting the portraits of the six men who were killed in the shooting on Jan. 29, 2017 at the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre in Quebec City.

With files from The Canadian Press and Émilie Warren