Should the fate of Saint-Apollinaire's cemetery project have been decided in a referendum?

Thousands of people in Quebec’s Muslim community will not have a place to bury their dead near the rural municipality of Saint-Apollinaire, Que. — and it all came down to fewer than 20 votes.

Project was struck down when 19 out of 36 registered residents voted against it

The proposed site for the Muslim-run cemetery was in Saint-Apollinaire, a town of 6,400 people. Only those in the immediate vicinity of the site, 70 people, were eligible to register to vote in the referendum. (Radio-Canada)

Quebec's Muslim community will not have a place to bury their dead near the rural municipality of Saint-Apollinaire, Que., and it all came down to fewer than 20 votes.

Some city mayors, who were in favour of the project, are now questioning whether a referendum was the way to settle the matter.

"Forty-nine people had the right to decide the fate of a project, which has a sociological impact that is very important in Quebec — just that is incredible," said Quebec City Mayor Régis Labeaume. "We have to ask ourselves questions about our governance system."

Here are the numbers:

Only residents who live close to the proposed site were eligible to vote. That's 70 people.

Of those 70, 49 registered to vote in the referendum, and 36 of them cast a ballot in Sunday's referendum.

  • 19 against.
  • 16 for.
  • One rejected ballot.

The 19 votes were just enough for a majority, eking out a win for the No side, an upsetting fact for leaders of the Muslim community.

"How can 19 people stop a project for several thousand people? It makes no sense," said Mohamed Kesri from the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre.
Mohamed Kesri from the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre says the community will keep fighting for a place to bury their dead in accordance to rituals of the Islamic faith. (Radio-Canada)

"People are...outraged," well-known Quebec imam Hassan Guillet told CBC. "They're outraged at how come only 19 people can decide the fate of thousands of people."

Referendums 'not an ideal process,' professor says

A referendum can be an effective way to exercise democracy, but only if certain conditions are met, according to one expert.

"They can be part of the solution, but they are not the whole solution," said Dominique Leydet, professor of philosophy at UQAM and director of the Research Centre on diversity and democracy.

In this referendum, Leydet points to the low number of eligible voters as a concern.

"In this case, it was only the people in the immediate vicinity who had the word. You can question that. Would it have been better to have a larger number of people involved?" she said.

Referendums only make sense oncea debate is mature enough.- Dominique Leydet, UQAM professor

"It does seem to me that the impact of this decision was much larger than the number of people who had an effective say in the decision. That I find problematic."

Leydet adds that referendums can be a good solution to a problem, but only if voters are well-informed about the debate.

"I think that referendums only make sense once a debate is mature enough. So the question is: was there enough time to have really in-depth discussions about the issues? Were people informed enough to make deliberate judgment?"

According to the mayor of Saint-Apollinaire, the answer to that question in this instance was no.

After Sunday night's referendum results were revealed, Bernard Ouellet said he thought residents had been misinformed.

"I think the community, in general, I think what guided their decision was really fear and having bad information. I'm really convinced it's that," he told reporters after the votes were counted.

"The few people I heard talking about it, it shows the people are not informed enough. They don't know these people so they base their decisions on hearsay."

Debate first, vote later

Mayors across Quebec had been trying to put an end to citizen-led referendums, saying that they tend to favour the interests of a small group over the interests of the community at large.

In June, the Quebec government passed a law that allows municipalities to decide whether they want to abolish referendums and replace them with public consultations.

Leydet warns that holding a referendum when the debate is not ripe yet just makes them divisive.

"It divides people because on one hand you have people who win and on the other you have people who lose. The costs are real and that's why it is not an ideal solution," she said.

"Referendums should be initiated only when other avenues have been explored and people have found there was not a fourth, or fifth or sixth alternative that could bring people together.…When that is clear, maybe it's the only way to decide an issue."