The year since the mosque shooting has made amnesiacs out of Quebec's political class
Provincial politicians have shrugged off the idea of a national day of remembrance and action on Islamophobia
On the morning of Jan. 31, 2017, with camera in hand, I walked into the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec. Less than 48 hours before, a gunman had walked into the centre, killing six and injuring 19. Once the police had finished their work, mosque administrators opened the doors to journalists, if only to show firsthand the often-visceral consequences of unchecked hatred and ignorance.
It was like the aftermath of war. Men and women parishioners wandered around, dazed and weeping. Bullets, dozens of them, had splintered drywall and shattered glass. And blood was everywhere: on the carpet and prayer rugs, on the Linoleum floor outside the main room, caking the stairs to the basement and circling a storage closet drain. It smeared windows and pooled in sinks. I left with it on my boots.
The province's political leaders were immediately and appropriately sombre. Quebecers "must avoid words and gestures that separate, divide and attract hate," said Premier Philippe Couillard. François Legault, leader of the conservative Coalition Avenir Québec, expressed his solidarity in the face of "senseless violence" with Quebec's Muslim community. Parti Québécois leader Jean-François Lisée said the most by stating the obvious. "It's not easy to be a Muslim in the 21st century," he told reporters.
If time weakens emotions and fades memories, the year since the shooting has made amnesiacs out of Quebec's political class. Last week, the National Council of Canadian Muslims asked the federal government to designate Jan. 29 as a national day of remembrance and action on Islamophobia. In Quebec, the idea of questioning exactly why the shooting took place was largely met with shrugs or worse.
Both the PQ and the CAQ quickly opposed such a thing. "I think we've debated the divisions surrounding the presence of religion enough in Quebec," PQ MNA Agnès Maltais told Le Devoir. The governing Liberals, who harvest the vast majority of the province's Muslim vote come election day, utterly waffled on the idea.
Once aghast at the many Muslim victims who had done nothing but gather for prayers, these politicians now declared the deliberate targeting of Muslims passé — an isolated incident perpetuated by a crazy man. "Quebecers are open and welcoming, they are not Islamophobic," said a CAQ spokesperson. (Only Québec solidaire, the Montreal-centric lefty redoubt, came out in favour of the NCCM proposal.)
Clearly, the amnesia stretches beyond the last year. On Dec. 6, 1989, Marc Lépine walked into Montreal's École Polytechnique and killed 14 women before turning his gun on himself. Like Alexandre Bissonnette, the man currently on trial for last year's mosque massacre, Lépine was more than just a crazy man with a gun. He harboured a deep resentment of women, which he weaponized and made homicidal in the classrooms and corridors of Polytechnique.
The Polytechnique shootings sparked a societal debate in the province about gender, feminism and the extent of institutional misogyny in Quebec society, purportedly one of the more equalitarian in the country. It was a painful but wholly necessary exercise, one commemorated by the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women.
At first glance, it might be difficult to see why most Quebec politicians are ambivalent at best about a similar exercise for Muslims in Quebec and beyond. Lépine blamed feminists for his problems. Bissonnette left an online trail of anti-Muslim rhetoric before the mosque shootings. And as with Polytechnique 28 years earlier, the mosque shootings were but the bloodiest example of institutional enmity against an identifiable group.
Crimes targeting Muslims
Police-reported hate crimes against Muslims in Canada tripled between 2012 and 2015, according to Statistics Canada. In Quebec City, crimes targeting Muslims have doubled since the mosque shootings, according to the city's police chief.
Apart from being alarming, such statistics are fodder for Muslim extremists, who use society-wide anti-Muslim animus as a recruiting tool. If this is the case, these extremists have a veritable wellspring of recruiting material in Quebec City's many populist (and enduringly popular) radio stations, which — with a few notable exceptions — remain largely anti-Muslim and anti-immigration a year after the mosque shootings.
For its politicians, perhaps it's less about amnesia than Quebec's own brand of crass identity politics. The three main political parties are locked in a battle for the hearts and votes of Quebec's lily-white, lapsed Catholic hinterland in Quebec City and beyond — everywhere, it seems, save for Montreal. The dynamics are such that even the Liberals, who have a lock on the non-Francophone vote, can demonize Montreal's multicultural reality.
In 2013, the PQ government attempted to ban "conspicuous" religious symbols from the bodies of anyone drawing a government paycheque. Though it failed, the ensuing Liberal government last year passed a ban on face coverings for anyone giving or receiving a government service. Only Québec solidaire protested the law's blatant targeting of Quebec's Muslim minority. Everyone else said it didn't go far enough.
A year ago, these very politicians professed shock and sadness at a murderous hate crime perpetrated on their watch. Demonstrably, as Quebec approaches a fall election, political reality has pushed this emotion aside. Maybe they didn't forget the tragedy. Maybe they just don't want to be reminded of the reasons behind it.