Quebec City Muslims alarmed by increasingly public displays of racism one year after mosque shooting

Muslims from three generations reflect on the year that has passed since the deadly shooting at a Quebec City mosque on Jan. 29, 2017, which left six dead.

But community remains resilient as it seeks to foster greater understanding

'I should have landed elsewhere in Canada,' said Rachid Raffa, a former president of the mosque in Sainte-Foy, site of last year's deadly shooting. (Julia Page/CBC News)

Rachid Raffa is tired and bitter.

It's been 43 years since he chose to settle in Quebec City after leaving Algeria. But as his encounters with racism become more commonplace, he's come to feel less at home.

"When I came to this country in 1975 I got off at the wrong airport," the 68-year-old said during a recent lunch break from his job at the provincial Ministry of Transport.

"I should have landed elsewhere in Canada."

Raffa has been an active member of Quebec City's Muslim community for decades. In the 1990s, he was president of the Islamic Cultural Centre, which later opened a mosque in the suburb of Sainte-Foy. He still prays there regularly.

More recently, he's watched with disgust as mosques around the city are increasingly targeted by vandalism.

Anti-Muslim tracts were plastered over three prayer spaces in 2014. Some had their windows smashed the following year.

Raffa's sense of dread deepened when, in June 2016, a pig's head was dumped outside the Islamic Cultural Centre with the words 'Bonne Appétit' [sic] in a card.

"My bus goes by the mosque and I often told my wife 'May God protect this place.' But it happened," he said.

For Quebec City's Muslim community, emotions remain raw one year after six men were killed in a local mosque. (Mathieu Belanger/Reuters )

On Jan. 29, 2017, moments after Sunday evening prayer ended, a gunman entered the nondescript building in Sainte-Foy.

Six men were killed that night, five others were injured. Seventeen children were left without fathers and the entire city was shaken to its core.

The response to the tragedy was swift. Thousands gathered the next day in the cold, holding candles and walking in silence, to honour the victims.

In the days that followed, politicians denounced all forms of hate speech and promised to safeguard the rights of all citizens.

But the light that emerged during the city's darkest hour faded quickly.

CBC News spoke to dozens of community members in the weeks leading up to the one-year anniversary of the shooting. They described having to negotiate casual racism, outright Islamophobia and persistent fears for their safety.

Several who agreed to speak on the record refused to appear on camera or have their picture taken. They were concerned they would be targeted afterwards.
The social harmony promised by Quebec's leaders after the shooting has failed to materialize. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

The social harmony promised by Quebec's leaders after the shooting has failed to materialize.

In its place are acrimonious political debates over identity and religious accommodation, a surge in activity of far-right groups and a spike in the number of reported hate crimes.

"Everything that touches Muslims has become explosive. And we are fed up. I am fed up," said Raffa. 

"I am completely overwhelmed that this tragedy has led to the rise of racist rhetoric in the public sphere, to the complete indifference of Quebec's elite."

A climate of fear

Shortly after the shooting, Quebec City's Muslim community resumed its long-standing effort to acquire a burial ground in or around the city.

The city's first mosque dates from the late 1970s. But families had to travel to Laval, 260 kilometres away, to bury their dead.

They thought they had found a suitable location for the cemetery in Saint-Apollinaire, a town only 40 kilometres outside Quebec City. Even the local mayor was on board.

But a citizens group arose in opposition, and the cemetery project was quashed by a slim majority in a referendum.

​The outcome puzzled many in the Muslim community, including Raffa.   

"Find me one piece of evidence of integration that is more convincing than my desire to be buried here," he asked.

Quebec City Mayor Régis Labeaume eventually stepped in and secured city land for the Muslim cemetery. Community leaders expressed joy and relief.

"It's a historic day," said Mohamed Labidi, president of the Sainte-Foy mosque, which is also known as the Quebec City Islamic Cultural Centre.

Thirty six hours later, Labidi's car was torched while parked outside his home.

Sana Labidi, who studies law at Laval University, asked that her face not be shown. She thinks she will leave Quebec City one day for a larger, more diverse city like Toronto. (Peter Tardif/CBC)

Police arrested two suspects. They don't believe either of them was aware of Labidi's role, but allege one of them published Islamophobic messages on social media.

For Labidi's daughter, Sana, that the attack was random simply made things worse.

"I think that is quite telling," she said. "He wasn't targeting anybody, he was just targeting Muslims."

The weeks that followed were difficult for Sana Labidi. She no longer felt safe walking alone at night in the city where she grew up, a city that has one of the lowest crime rates in Canada.

Quebec City police revealed last month, however, that the number of reported hate incidents targeting Muslims doubled in 2017, going from 21 to 42.
Since the attack, the Sainte-Foy mosque has introduced magnetic keys for its members and installed concrete blocks in front of the main entrance. (Julia Page/CBC)

The year prior, there were 7.1 reported hate incidents per 100,000 residents in the city. The national average is 3.9 per 100,000.

​"It's probably one of the safest cities to live in if you're not Muslim. But if you are, you just have to be careful," said Sana Labidi.

"People [aren't afraid] anymore of being a racist. They have a smokescreen they can hide behind."

That smokescreen, she explained, are the arguments used by far-right groups who denounce immigration policies or religious freedoms while claiming to defend women's rights and Quebec culture.

Islamophobia goes public

Many young Muslims in Quebec City are accustomed to hearing, and ignoring, racist comments. But there is a sense that something has changed over the past decade, and for the worse.

Quebec politics has become dominated by debates about religious symbols and secular values. In these debates — such as whether face coverings should prevent someone from accessing public services — much of the public's scrutiny lands on Muslims.

The insecurity felt by many of Quebec City's roughly 10,000 Muslims is made worse by the growing number of far-right groups active in the area.

La Meute — whose members circulate Islamophobic comments online — has held three demonstrations in Quebec City since the shooting, each attracting several hundred people.

"I used to walk around the park with my friend who wears the veil and there wasn't any problem," said Khadija Zahid, who works at the Environment Ministry.

Now, she doesn't feel at ease going out with her daughter if she sees that La Meute's members have taken to the streets.
Khadija Zahib moved to Canada on her own in 2007, after going through four years of procedures to obtain a work visa in Quebec. (Julia Page/CBC)

Zahid, who also wears a hijab, immigrated to Quebec from Morocco in 2007, and always felt she had a place here.

But she's become unsettled by the growing number of safety precautions she has to take as a Muslim living in Quebec City.

She now requires a magnetic pass to enter the Islamic Cultural Centre, one of several security measures the mosque implemented after the shooting. 

"A mosque should be open to everyone," Zahid said. "Even non-Muslims are welcome. But this chip, it's scary. It means there could be another [attack]."

Sophia LaaBabsi, who owns a daycare in the suburb of Beauport, said her parents urge her to remain inconspicuous in public. They don't want her answering her cell phone in Arabic.

"Right now, we have to be careful. It's the worst feeling I've ever [felt]."   

Resistance through understanding

But despite widespread concerns about their safety, many in the Muslim community refuse to be passive victims.

"I said: 'No, we are not entering in a civil war right here. That cannot happen in Quebec,'" LaaBabsi said, her voice rising above the din in her daycare.

The 22-year-old grew up in Quebec City. Her Moroccan parents chose to live here, a city they considered a safe haven, after falling in love in Montreal.
Sophia LaaBabsi says she ended a relationship because her boyfriend's grandparents could not accept that she did not eat bacon. "I just said to my boyfriend, 'I can't be part of a family that doesn't respect me.'" (Peter Tardif/CBC News)

As she witnessed anti-Muslim racism becoming more prevalent, LaaBabsi decided to do something.

In March 2017, she created an event called Apprenons à nous connaître (Getting to know each other), which brought together non-Muslims and Muslims to discuss Islam.

Close to 200 people showed up to listen to guest speakers and chat over traditional Moroccan dishes.

LaaBabsi said even those who arrived with preconceived ideas left with bags of food, eagerly awaiting the next event.

"People who are Islamophobic, who are xenophobic in any way, it's because they are ignorant. So we just tried to educate people," she added.

The Islamic Cultural Centre, site of last year's deadly shooting, has also made efforts to break down cultural barriers.

"Once you get to know people everything changes," said Brian Semple, a fifth generation Scottish-Quebecer who converted to Islam in 2003.
'Once you get to know people everything changes,' said Brian Semple, a fifth-generation Scottish-Quebecer who converted to Islam in 2003. (Julia Page/CBC News)

Semple's friend, Azzeddine Soufiane, was the among the six men killed last year. Once Semple got over the shock of Soufiane's death, he pledged not to avoid the mosque, but rather to use it as a place of dialogue.

Semple is often called on to welcome English-speaking groups who visit the Sainte-Foy mosque, a regular occurrence since the attack.

"That's what we try to do now: get people to come and meet us. Not everyone is interested, and I can understand that, but to build bridges is very important."

The veil as a conversation starter

Zaïd Mellouki, 20, considers himself a perfect candidate to educate others about Islam, even though he's not a practicing Muslim.

Mellouki moved to Quebec City from Morocco at the age of four. Unlike other members of the Muslim community, he doesn't feel the shooting altered his sense of belonging.

"I know everything about my Moroccan culture. But at the end of the day I am a Quebecer. And people treat me that way," he said.

By embodying both cultures, he is able answer the questions that come up when people discover, despite his Québécois accent, that he is Moroccan.

"All the stereotypes just come in: 'Oh you're from Morocco, you must like couscous. Oh you're from Morocco, you must have seen a lot of camels,'" he said.

Zaïd Mellouki with his good friend Vincent Michel, hanging out on Quebec City's popular Grande Allée street, where Mellouki's parents run a restaurant. (Peter Tardif/CBC News)

But much of the ignorance he faces comes from older people, Mellouki observed. He feels the evenings he's spent with people his own age, discussing why women wear the veil, have led to more understanding.

Zahid, for her part, has seen the hijab become an obstacle for many women looking for work in Quebec, from doctors to engineers.

As the only Muslim in her office at Quebec's Environment Ministry, she believes she can do more to change perceptions than any government by simply interacting with her co-workers.

"Now there are 80 people who have a positive image of a Muslim woman," she said of her office.

"It's through contact that one discovers. Not through the media. It's by being close that things will improve."

With files from Peter Tardif