Close-knit community in heart of Quebec City mourns victims of Halloween attacks

Old Quebec City is usually overrun with tourists. But the pandemic has left the streets quiet, and local residents have turned to each other to cope. The killings on Halloween have left the small community feeling shaken.

Residents of Old Quebec 'village' shocked by loss of two of their own

Hundreds gathered on rue des Remparts in Quebec City Monday night to honour the victims of Sunday's stabbing attack. (Thomas Cobbett Labonté/CBC)

For many residents of Old Quebec, it's unfathomable that the Halloween night attacks — which left two dead and five injured — could have happened so close to home.

Suzanne Clermont, 61, and François Duchesne, 56, were killed late Saturday: Clermont, while she stepped outside her home to have a cigarette, and Duchesne, who was out running.

Both were residents of the city, and known to many people in the historic neighbourhood's close-knit community.

"To me, it sounded absolutely impossible that something like this could happen in Old Quebec," said Marie-Josée Bouchard. "I just couldn't believe it."

"It's my home, it's my backyard, it's where we live," she said.

Pandemic has left area quiet

Were it not for COVID-19 restrictions, the streets of Old Quebec might have been bustling with tourists, flocking from around the world to take in the quaint boutiques, lively restaurants, and historic hotels.

But within the 300-year-old walls of the old city, there's a strong and vibrant community of people who call the place home — and feel safe there.

Historian David Mendel has lived within the walls of Old Quebec since 1976, and describes "a very wonderful neighbourhood life."

The places where Clermont and Duchesne's bodies were found, as well as 23 other crime scenes police worked through Sunday, are all within a three-minute walk of Mendel's home.

When Mendel heard the news of the killings early Sunday morning, he said he went for a walk.

"We felt rather strange in our own neighbourhood," he recounted.

"It's our home, it's our neighbourhood, so we wanted to go out and walk to reclaim our streets, so to speak," he said.

Mendel did not know any of the victims personally, but said he is close with several people who did, and plans to attend the vigils for Clermont and Duchesne.

Historian David Mendel says the old city has a neighbourly feel to it.

On rue des Remparts, where Clermont was killed outside the home she shared with her longtime partner, friends and mourners placed bouquets of flowers.

Many of her clients, whose hair she had cut and styled for 25 years, congregated there to pay their respects.

It was the same spot where Clermont and a dozen of her friends and neighbours had held physically distanced gatherings during the summer months to get through the pandemic together.

"Our little group from the neighbourhood, which we call the little village ... we had dedicated this space, between the cannons, as our living room. So we would bring our chairs and have a 5-à-7, and sometimes they'd drag on a little bit," Francine Matteau told Radio-Canada.

And it was there that municipal councillor Jean Rousseau — who knew both Clermont and Duchesne — went Sunday.

He recounted seeing the flowers, and when someone arrived and learned of Clermont's death, watching them burst into tears.

"We were all trying to be present for her, and obviously it's hard, because to take people into your arms is something you can't do in these times of COVID, so our words were trying to heal her a little bit," he told CBC's Quebec AM.

"The difficulty of understanding what has been going on is still hard for a lot of people, for me as well," he said. "I knew these people, and the fact that it happened in Old Quebec … it's unfathomable."

"We can't understand why it happened, why such horrible events took place, but the community is strong, people are helping each other, and again, we won't forget the people who passed away," he said. "As a community, we are tightly knit."

The church at the centre

Bouchard, a business owner in the area, came home from work Saturday evening, and parked her car in the lot behind the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, the Anglican Church, near the Chateau Frontenac hotel.

Duchesne was killed on Rue du Trésor, right behind the church.

On Sunday morning, Bishop Bruce Myers held a service there, telling the shaken congregation that it was important for the community, fatigued from months of COVID-19 restrictions, to come together for comfort and prayer.

He also said Saturday's attacks are painfully reminiscent of the mosque shooting that took place at the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre just under four years ago.

"We've barely recovered and figured out how to deal with the trauma of a mass killing that was directed in a very specific way in our city against one of our religious and cultural communities," he explained. "And now we have a random killing of a particularly heinous variety in the heart of the old city."

Longtime resident Louisa Blair attended Sunday morning's service, despite having been out of town the night before, and not knowing any of the victims personally.

Residents have left flowers on Sainte-Anne street, near the Château Frontenac hotel.

"We all wanted to be together and see that we were all there," she said. 

"We feel so much that these were our neighbours who were randomly targeted," she added. "It could have happened to any of us, and it did happen to some of us."

Blair said that while people are traumatized, they are also determined to carry on living. 

"We're not going to let something like this stop us."

Warnings and comfort on social media

On social media, some of the first warnings to stay inside came from concerned residents of the neighbourhood, who'd heard rumours of a man attacking pedestrians.

And now on social media, residents have come together to offer support, lighting candles in their window sills, and offering to walk each other home if anyone feels unsafe.

The identities of the five other victims, who included two local residents who are French nationals, are covered by a publication ban.

with files from Julia Page