5 years after fatal mosque attack, Quebec City Muslims call for CAQ government to do more to end Islamophobia

As they commemorate the six men shot to death at Islamic Cultural Centre on Jan. 29, 2017, Muslims in the province's capital say fighting Islamophobia includes changing Quebec's controversial secularism law, Bill 21, and enacting stronger gun control laws.

Mosque leader calls on politicians to amend Bill 21, Quebec's secularism law, and toughen gun controls

To mark the fifth anniversary of the tragedy that took place at the Islamic Cultural Centre in 2017, the centre's co-founder, Boufeldja Benabdallah, says the government must recognize that its secularism law contributes to Islamophobia, targeting Muslim women who wear the hijab.  (Radio-Canada)

Sitting in the same prayer room of a Quebec City mosque where he was injured in a deadly shooting almost five years ago, Saïd Akjour says he remembers the horrific attack as if it happened yesterday.

"I can still see Aboubaker Thabti," said Akjour, pointing to the spot where he last saw his fellow worshipper. "I can still see Azzedine Soufiane."

One by one, he listed the names of all of the men killed at the Islamic Cultural Centre on Jan. 29, 2017: Mamadou Tanou Barry, Abdelkrim Hassane, Ibrahima Barry and Khaled Belkacemi.

At a news conference Thursday at the newly renovated mosque, Akjour and other community members outlined details of the commemorative events scheduled for Saturday to mark the fifth anniversary of the attack. 

Saïd Akjour was shot in the shoulder during a deadly attack at a Quebec City mosque in 2017. He now rarely steps foot in the prayer room where the mass shooting took place. (Maxime Corneau/Radio-Canada)

The co-founder of the Islamic centre, Boufeldja Benabdallah, said the commemorations are usually simple. However, this year, the community is calling for more government action to fight Islamophobia, including changing parts of Quebec's controversial secularism law, known as Bill 21, and toughening Canada's gun control laws. 

"We need to take action, and action is the fight against discrimination and systemic racism; it is the fight against guns that kill our children, our adults," Benabdallah said. 

Calls for federal handgun ban

On Wednesday, leaders of the mosque renewed their calls for a Canada-wide ban on handguns. They sent letters to the federal and Quebec governments, urging all sides to make sure that any new gun control legislation is applied across the country.

The federal Liberal government had planned to give municipalities the legal right to ban guns on their territories, but that bill never passed.

In a letter addressed to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino, Benabdallah and other Muslim leaders asked the government "to stop efforts to absolve the federal government of responsibility for the handgun issue."

Six men died in the attack on the Quebec Mosque. They are, clockwise from left, Mamadou Tanou Barry, Azzeddine Soufiane, Abdelkrim Hassane, Ibrahima Barry, Aboubaker Thabti and Khaled Belkacemi. (CBC)

The six victims in the 2017 mass shooting were shot with a 9mm Glock pistol over a period of about two minutes. The shooter had at least five other weapons, including three assault rifles. All the weapons in his possession were acquired legally.

"It is absolutely harmful and shameful to note that in five years, nothing has been done to change the circumstances that allowed this individual to acquire or keep such an arsenal," mosque leaders wrote.

"In other words, an individual with the same profile could today own the same weapons and accessories."

While assault weapons were banned federally as of May 2020, those that were in circulation before that date remain in the hands of owners while they await details of a federal buyback program.

Combating Islamophobia takes changes to policy

Pointing to another targeted, deadly attack against a Muslim family in London, Ont., last year, Benabdallah said Thursday that the fight against Islamophobia is far from over nationwide.

He said Premier François Legault's refusal to acknowledge its existence is hindering progress in Quebec.

"In Quebec, our premier does not acknowledge systemic racism or Islamophobia as existing," he said, noting it takes changes to government policy, like Bill 21, to combat Islamophobia.

Premier François Legault defends Bill 21: 

Legault backs Bill 21 on eve of mosque shooting anniversary

5 months ago
Duration 0:56
Quebec Premier François Legault says Bill 21 is 'not about racism' and not 'against Muslims.'

The controversial bill bars public servants "in positions of authority" from the wearing of religious symbols, including the hijab — the headscarf worn by some Muslim women. Benabdallah called on that religious symbol ban to be changed, as he said it unfairly punishes Muslim women. 

"Any politician that creates a law that disproportionately impacts a group of people is a law that you need to look closely at," said Nora Loreto at Thursday's news conference. She is part of the citizens group, Commémoration citoyenne de l'attentat du 29 janvier 2017.

Loreto says the bill "has done such damage to feeding Islamophobia," also suggesting it primarily targets Muslim women. 

Quebec Premier François Legault has repeatedly defended the bill, saying it's neither aimed at Muslims nor motivated by racism. 

A ceremony at the mosque to mark the anniversary of the six men's deaths is scheduled for Saturday at 6 p.m. Due to COVID-19, organizers are asking most people to follow the event online. Survivors and relatives of the victims will deliver speeches. Legault and Quebec City Mayor Bruno Marchand will be in attendance. 

"We hope to be able to meet and gather in real life at some point," said Maryam Bessiri, another member of the citizens group. 

"The commemoration of Jan. 29 ... is a space of gathering. It is to assemble all the people who want to build something together for the sake of memory and moving forward." 

with files from the Canadian Press