Memorial to the victims of the Quebec City mosque attack unveiled

Ayman Derbali, who survived the attack and saved the lives of many of his fellow worshippers, calls the memorial "a bridge between the church and the mosque, between ... all the citizens of Quebec City and Canadians in general."

Erected as symbol to human resilience and unity, the artist who created it says 'the other is us.'

Megda Belkacemi, whose father Khaled was killed during the 2017 Quebec City mosque shooting, leaves the inauguration of a memorial to the victims on Tuesday (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

It's been nearly four years since a gunman opened fire during evening prayers at Quebec City's central mosque, but the wounds, both physical and emotional, may never mend.

"I'm remembering my brothers all the time," said Ayman Derbali, a father of three who survived the attack on Jan. 26. 2017, and is regarded as a hero by his fellow worshippers for putting himself into the line of fire so they might be spared.

"I have not yet healed," said Boufeldja Benabdallah, a co-founder of the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre.

"This tragedy has left a permanent scar on the hearts of many of our fellow citizens," said Quebec City Mayor Régis Labeaume.

The three men were on hand for the dedication of a memorial to the six victims who died in the attack — Ibrahima Barry, Mamadou Tanou Barry, Khaled Belkacemi, Abdelkrim Hassane, Azzedine Soufane and Aboubaker Thabti.

It is also dedicated to the more than 40 people who suffered injuries and their families as well as to the community that rose to support them.

The names of the six men who died in the 2017 attack are immortalized in stone, the leaves linking the plinths are based on maple and elm leaves collected at the site, and stylized in the artistic traditions of the mens' birth countries. (Julia Page/CBC)

The memorial, which is on two sites — across Route de l'Église from one another — was designed by Quebec City artist Luce Pelletier and built using $440,000 raised from the municipal, Quebec and Canadian governments.

Pelletier imagined the work as an homage to resilience and unity. Titled 'Vivre ensemble,' the memorial features three plinths with the names of the dead inscribed, each of them connected by an arabesque of intertwined silver leaves.

They were cast from maple and elm leaves Pelletier gathered from the grounds of the mosque, their adopted home, and have been stylized to reflect the artistic traditions of the countries the men were born in: Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, the Republic of Guinea.

The leaves symbolize the ties that bind us all together. "The other," Pelletier said, "is us."

Ayman Derbali, right, a survivor of the 2017 Quebec City mosque shooting, speaks with Quebec City Mayor Régis Labeaume after the inauguration. (Hadi Hassin/Radio-Canada)

Derbali, who drove past the site last Friday hoping to catch a glimpse ("It was still covered up," he said), was plainly touched by the memorial.

"It's like a bridge between the church and the mosque, between Christians and Muslims ... all the citizens of Quebec City and Canadians in general," he said. "It's very significant."

Several of the other victims' families were also in attendance. Benabdallah described them as "serene."

Half the memorial installation is near Quebec City's central mosque, the other half is across the street in the Parc de la Visitation, home to the remnants of the Notre-Dame-de-Foy church, built in 1699. (Julia Page/CBC)

Benabdallah pointed out the practice of Islam involves esthetic considerations — "You wear your finest clothes to attend the mosque," he said — and linked it to the stark beauty of the memorial. 

"The joy of looking at something beautiful is calming," he said.

A close-up of the inscription on one wall of the mosque shooting memorial, which features a verse from Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran. (Hadi Hassin/Radio-Canada)

It fell to Labeaume to address the elephant in the room: last week, Statistics Canada issued a report on hate crimes in 2019 and Quebec City ranked fourth highest in the country at 8.6 events per 100,000 inhabitants.

"Quebec City has an undercurrent of hatred. There are people who will dig into the depths of the human belly and who will make money with it," he said, alluding to the city's famously caustic talk-radio stations. "That's racism, or blatant prejudice."

Benabdallah said "the statistics are the statistics, we can't run away from them," but added he has personally witnessed a new openness in his interactions in the city since the attack.

In any event, he said, "a society is built through ups and downs. One dares hope the ups end up dominating."

with files from Julia Page