Quebec City pressed to ramp up fight against anti-Muslim attacks

Quebec City is being urged to pour more resources into investigating anti-Muslim attacks, in the wake of the recent firebombing of a car belonging to the leader of a local mosque.

'We have been asking for years now that the police learn how to deal with hate,' activist says

Mohamed Labidi, president of the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre, pauses as he answers a question from reporters in February after attending a court appearance of Alexandre Bissonnette, charged in the Quebec City mosque shooting. Labidi's car was torched on Aug. 6. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Quebec City is being urged to pour more resources into investigating anti-Muslim attacks in the wake of the recent firebombing of a car belonging to the leader of a local mosque.

The city's police service does not have a dedicated hate crimes unit and is one of only three major Canadian municipalities that doesn't track hate crimes under the guidelines laid out by Statistics Canada.

"We have been asking for years now that the police learn how to deal with hate," said Haroun Bouazzi, a prominent anti-racism activist and co-president of the Association of Muslims and Arabs for Secularism in Quebec.

The vehicle belonging to Mohamed Labidi went up in flames on Aug. 6, only a day after he had appeared alongside Quebec City Mayor Régis Labeaume to celebrate the sale of city-owned land to the Muslim community for the creation of a cemetery.

In January, six men were shot dead at Labidi's mosque, the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre. 

Alexandre Bissonnette, 27, faces six counts of first-degree murder and five counts of attempted murder while using a restricted firearm in the attack.

There were other troubling incidents leading up to the shooting. Someone left a gift-wrapped pig's head in front of the mosque during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in June 2016.

The rash of incidents in Quebec City in the aftermath of the shooting has left local Muslims increasingly worried about their own safety.

"Extremist acts are now affecting our lives, the lives of Quebec citizens and Canadian Muslims, as well as our property and our religion," the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre said on its Facebook page.

When is a crime a hate crime? 

The torching of the mosque leader's vehicle wasn't made public until Wednesday, more than three weeks after it occurred — in the interests of both the Labidi family and the police investigation, police said. 

National Council of Canadian Muslims spokesperson Amira Elghawaby, far right, called on governments to counter Islamophobia, racism and discrimination, on Parliament Hill earlier this year. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Police have also resisted labelling the most recent incident a hate crime, a decision Bouazzi and other anti-racism activists find puzzling.

"It is quite concerning to community members that police seem to be reluctant to call incidents like this at least an alleged hate crime," said Amira Elghawaby, a spokesperson for the National Council of Canadian Muslims.

Not doing so, she said, is a signal to victims that police aren't taking the issue seriously. 

Most major cities in Canada have a group of officers trained to deal with such cases, and the provincial capital would benefit from having a small team with that expertise, said Denise Helly, an expert in extremism and minorities at Quebec's Institut national de la recherche scientifique.

"If you don't have a section, there is nobody to record it, nobody to study," she said. 

As it stands, Quebec City's major crimes unit handles suspected hate crimes.

Speaking Wednesday, Quebec City police spokesperson Lieut. Jean-François Vézina noted the "accumulation" of incidents targeting the city's Muslim community.

"We want to find the reasons that led to this criminal act," he said.

The police service offered no further comment Thursday.

Mayor sees 'worrisome pattern'

Labeaume, for his part, has wavered in his response to anti-Muslim sentiment in his city.

Last week the mayor urged political leaders across the province to "open their eyes" to the rise of far-right groups in Quebec. And on Wednesday he expressed concern about the rash of anti-Muslim incidents. 

"They're adding up, and they can't become a pattern,"  he said, referring to incidents at the mosque. "It's very worrisome." 

Members of the far-right group La Meute held a rally in Quebec City earlier this month. (Maxime Corneau/Radio-Canada)

However, Labeaume has repeatedly rejected a proposal to open an anti-radicalization office in Quebec City to grapple with right-wing extremism.

La Meute, the province's largest far-right group and many of whose members come from the Quebec City area, staged a rally earlier this month outside the National Assembly.

​"Our position is very clear: We don't need this in Quebec City, and we won't put in one cent. If we feel the need one day, then we'll do it," Labeaume said last May.

He echoed the same sentiments on Thursday, adding that both the RCMP and Quebec police forces have the resources to address such issues.

"They know what to do and they know where they are going, and they have everything in their hands to do it."

The Centre for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence, an independent non-profit agency that receives government funding, is based in Montreal. It has two employees in Quebec City but hasn't been able to set up an office yet, said spokesperson Anamaria Cardona.

With files from Jaela Bernstien and la Presse Canadienne