Muslim cemetery opponents collect 40 signatures in effort to block project in Saint-Apollinaire

The town southwest of Quebec City now must validate each signature, but it's likely Saint-Apollinaire will now have to hold a referendum on a zoning change to permit a dedicated Islamic cemetery.

Municipality may now have to hold referendum on zoning change that would allow Islamic burial ground

Sunny Létourneau, a member of a group called the association for alternatives, has been going door to door in Saint-Apollinaire in an effort to take a Muslim cemetery proposal to a referendum. (Marc-Antoine Lavoie/Radio-Canada)

Forty people in the town of Saint-Apollinaire, 35 kilometres southwest of Quebec City, have signed requests to hold a referendum on a zoning change to permit a dedicated Muslim cemetery in a wooded area on the outskirts of town.

The town now has to verify the validity of those 40 signatures, but it would appear that number is sufficient to compel the municipality to move on to the next phase in a citizen-led referendum process that could block the project.

Sunny Létourneau has been going door to door in Saint-Apollinaire trying to persuade residents to prevent a group of Quebec City Muslims from establishing an Islamic cemetery in the rural community of 6,400.

Opponents of a proposed Muslim cemetery on the outskirts of Saint-Apollinaire gather outside of the municipality's office Wednesday, the deadline for requesting a citizen-led referendum on the project. (Marc-Antoine Lavoie/Radio-Canada)

Although Létourneau lives in Saint-Apollinaire, she does not live close enough to the proposed site for the cemetery to sign her own petition. 

However, she and about 20 other opponents from the area have formed a group to try to persuade those who do have a say in the matter to join their fight.

Létourneau says the group — called the Association de l'alternative citoyenne —  doesn't believe people of different religions should have separate burial grounds. She says she's equally opposed to cemeteries designated for Catholics, which are common across the province.

"Cemeteries are a reflection of our society. When we live in our homes, we all live next to each other," she said.​

No place to bury dead

Quebec City's Muslim community had been in discussions with the Harmonia funeral home in Saint-Apollinaire to buy land to establish their own cemetery since September 2016.

The initiative came to new prominence last January, after six men were gunned down right after evening prayers at the Islamic Cultural Centre in the Quebec City suburb of Sainte-Foy.

Muslim groups have been working for years to get designated cemetery spaces in Quebec. (CBC)

The men's families had nowhere nearby to bury their dead according to the rituals of the Islamic faith.

"We want land that belongs to us," Mohamed Kesri, the person responsible for the project, told Radio-Canada.

"We don't want to be renters. We want our own cemetery for Quebec Muslims."

Some people in the Muslim community felt that the petition points to greater social issues. 

"Every time we make an effort to be a part of the society, somebody comes with a hidden agenda and pushes us back as if we don't belong," said Hassan Guillet, spokesperson for the Quebec Council of Imams.

Mayor frustrated by process

The project has the full support of Saint-Apollinaire's mayor, Bernard Ouellet.

Saint-Apollinaire Mayor Bernard Ouellet, supports the Muslim cemetery project and said he's disappointed a small number of people could decide its fate. (Marc-Antoine Lavoie/Radio-Canada)

But because the land in question has to be rezoned, it is subject to the referendum process. It's a complicated formula to determine precisely who has the right to block it, but it will come down to just a few neighbours of the proposed cemetery across a large, sparsely populated area.

"I think it's unfortunate. It's going to be two or three people who can make us lose the project. That's what's disappointing," Ouellet said.

He said he'd be more comfortable if the entire community could vote on a project that he believes has wide support.

Integration argument 'pretext': local funeral director

Létourneau insists most people she met as she went door to door support her drive, which, she said, is a sincere effort to help Quebec Muslims.

"If someone is in the process of completely isolating themselves from others, wouldn't it be a greater gesture to reach out a hand and try to help them go in the direction of integration — what we are doing now — rather than let them isolate themselves, and then maybe something bad will happen," she said, her voice trailing off.

"We don't want that," she concludes.

The owner of Harmonia funeral home, Sylvain Roy, dismisses the argument that a Muslim cemetery will prevent members of a community from integrating. 'This is not a real point,' he said. (Catou MacKinnon/CBC)

The owner of the Harmonia funeral home, Sylvain Roy, is calling Létourneau and her group's integration argument a "pretext." 

Roy, who would manage the cemetery grounds if the project goes ahead, points out that current zoning rules already allow him to bury urns on the land.

"We already have a cemetery here. We have 200 people whose ashes are in the earth right now," Roy said.

"The difference is the people who want to buy this lot."

With files from Radio-Canada's Marc-Antoine Lavoie and CBC's Catou MacKinnon