Anniversary of Quebec City mosque shooting a chance to have a tough talk about hate, organizers say

It will be a smaller, simpler ceremony this year in Quebec City to mark the 2017 mosque shooting that left six people dead. But the province's political context, particularly the shadow of Bill 21, will be tough to ignore.

Multi-faith community groups carry forward outpouring of goodwill that followed shooting

Joseph Levasseur, left, and Maryam Bessiri of the Commémoration citoyenne de l’attentat du 29 janvier 2017, centre, and Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre president Boufeldja Benabdallah, right. (Jonathan Montpetit/CBC)

It will be a smaller, simpler ceremony this year in Quebec City to mark the 2017 mosque shooting that left six people dead and dozens suffering from injuries both physical and psychological.

A citizens group, Commémoration citoyenne de l'attentat du 29 janvier 2017, will hold a community supper later today — the third anniversary of the shooting — at a Catholic church down the street from where the attack took place.

One of the goals of the event is to build on the relationships that were formed between Quebec City's different cultural groups after the shooting.

The mood will likely be different from the first anniversary, when several hundred people gathered near the mosque, and last year's event at Laval University, where many of the victims had ties. 

"We're trying to push our thinking further about the importance of sharing and communicating," said Maryam Bessiri, a spokesperson for the organizing committee. "It's a sign of resilience because we're looking toward the future."

But it will be difficult to ignore the political dimension of the event.

Six men died in the attack on the Quebec City mosque. They are, clockwise from left, Mamadou Tanou Barry, Azzedine Soufiane, Abdelkrim Hassane, Ibrahima Barry, Aboubaker Thabti and Khaled Belkacemi. (CBC)

The shadow of Bill 21

This year's commemoration comes following several months of polarizing debate about a controversial new law that prohibits some civil servants from wearing religious symbols at work.

The law, also referred to as Bill 21, was passed by the provincial government over the opposition of several prominent Muslim groups, who feel it unfairly targets women who wear the hijab. 

Premier François Legault is expected to attend this evening's event. The president of the mosque where the shooting occurred, Boufeldja Benabdallah, said he hopes the premier will take time to listen to the people in attendance. 

"They'll surely ask him to be the premier of all Quebecers, which is what he promised to be," Benabdallah said Tuesday.

"And if they insist on that point, it will be because he hasn't lived up to that promise with Bill 21. That hurt us."

Several hundred people attended a ceremony near the mosque on the first anniversary of the deadly mass shooting. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Benabdallah said the harsh tone of the debate surrounding Bill 21 overshadowed some of the goodwill expressed toward Quebec's Muslim community following the shooting.

"The was a wind blowing in the right direction, and then all of a sudden this law came down," he said.

Laying the groundwork for tough conversations

But the inter-faith bonds forged in the wake of the Quebec City massacre remain strong, and active. 

Wednesday's community supper, for instance, is being organized by a group that came together the night of the shooting, and includes Muslims, Christians, Jews and non-believers.

"As a church, we have to create a common front with these other communities. We have to try to encourage love," said Joseph Levasseur, who is part of the organizing committee and a pastoral agent with Notre-Dame-de-Foy Church in Quebec City.

Organizers made 300 tickets to tonight's event at Saint Mathieu Church available for free. All were snapped up quickly.

They hope reaching out to a wide cross-section of society, and the presence of food, will create a comfortable setting for people to have difficult conversations, including about Islamophobia.

Benabdallah and Bessiri tour Saint Mathieu Church in the Quebec City suburb of Saint-Foy, where an event commemorating the 2017 mosque shooting will be held tonight. (Jonathan Montpetit/CBC)

The shooter, Alexandre Bissonnette, was sentenced last year to 40 years in prison. In handing down the sentence, a Quebec judge said Bissonnette was driven by a "visceral hatred toward Muslim immigrants."

But whether the shooting was an exception, or representative of deeper social issues, remains a contentious topic. 

For many in the province, the notion Islamophobia entails the accusation that Quebec society is itself racist.

Legault caused anger last year when he rejected a proposal to have Jan. 29 declared a day of action against Islamophobia, saying there was "no Islamophobia in Quebec." He later backed away from that comment.

"Our point of view is that Quebec is not Islamophobic; it is not racist. But there are currents of Islamophobia and racism, which we have to denounce. And when we denounce it, it is already a step toward solving the problem," Bessiri said.

"The space we're creating around the commemoration is also to be able to say, with a loud voice ... this was an Islamophobic attack that echoed those currents."


Jonathan Montpetit is a journalist with CBC Montreal. He will be a William Southam Journalism Fellow at Massey College in 2021-2022.