Muslim leaders in Quebec City find it difficult to ignore tensions that preceded shooting
'We don't live in a climate of fear, but we do take precautions,' mosque co-founder says
Quebec City's Muslim community was unsettled by acts of intolerance long before six men were gunned down in one of the city's largest mosques during Sunday night prayers.
Members of the mosque where the shooting occurred, the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec, had found intolerance written on their building's walls in the form of swastikas.
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In June, they found intolerance delivered to their doorstep during Ramadan as a gift-wrapped pig's head with a note that read, "bon appétit."
A few weeks later, a pamphlet was circulated in the neighbourhood that alleged the mosque was linked to terrorism.
So the mosque installed security cameras both inside and outside the building.
But it wasn't enough to prevent the unthinkable: a brazen shooting Sunday night that left six members dead and five others seriously injured.
"Security at our mosque was our major, major concern," said Mohamed Labidi, the facility's vice-president. "But we were caught off-guard."
Alexandre Bissonnette, 27, was charged Monday with six counts of first-degree murder and five counts of attempted murder. He was remanded in custody until his next court appearance Feb. 21.
Bissonnette appears to have earned a reputation as an online troll at Laval University, where he studied anthropology and political science.
In a Facebook post, a refugee support group said Bissonnette is "known to several activists in Quebec City for his pro-Le Pen and anti-feminist positions."
Marine Le Pen, leader of France's National Front party, is considered one of the leading voices of the anti-immigrant far-right movement in Europe.
Quebec City police don't believe there's a link between the graffiti and the pig's head and Sunday's shooting.
But it's difficult for the leaders of the mosque to ignore the context in which the attack occurred — one they say includes increasing hostility towards Quebec City's Muslim community.
"For two or three years now there have been individuals who appear in society and insult others because they are not like them," said Boufeldja Benabdallah, the mosque's co-founder.
"We don't live in a climate of fear, but we do take precautions."
Quebec City has a particularly active community of far-right groups compared to other Canadian cities.
The neo-fascist Atalante Québec conducts food drives for poor white families and even held a recruiting campaign at Laval University last week.
A Quebec chapter of Soldiers of Odin, an anti-immigrant group with origins in Finland, recently said it wants to "patrol" areas of Quebec City with large Muslim populations.
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The activities of such groups are likely to come under greater scrutiny in the days to come, even though it doesn't appear Bissonnette had a formal relationship with any of them.
(The leaders of La Meute, a Facebook group critical of multiculturalism that claims to have 43,000 members, said Bissonnette was never a member. A former leader of Soldiers of Odin-Quebec, Dave Tregget, said he'd never heard of the accused.)
The biggest far-right groups in the province, including Atalante, have released statements condemning the attack. Some appeared concerned it could damage their efforts to appeal to larger audiences.
Sylvain Maikan, a spokesman for La Meute, said he was worried his group would be linked to violent and racist elements of the far right.
"That's completely false and frustrates me to the highest degree," he told CBC in a Facebook exchange Monday night.
'Should not be complacent'
Premier Philippe Couillard said Sunday's shooting doesn't change the fact Quebec is an open and tolerant society, but he did acknowledge the presence of the "devils" of xenophobia and racism.
"We should not be complacent in our society," he said.
For the moment, Quebec's political class is making a show of unity and putting controversial political questions of identity and immigration aside.
At a candlelight vigil Monday night, politicians from all parties and all levels of government joined with thousands of others to express their dismay about the shooting.
Quebec City Mayor Régis Labeaume told the crowd: "Let's hope that one of the consequences of this will be rejecting those who feed off hate."