Vigil in Ottawa to mark mosque attack cancelled due to safety concerns around convoy protest

Organizers of an in-person vigil to remember the victims of an attack on a Quebec City mosque exactly five years ago that left six people dead have moved the event online, citing safety concerns related to the convoy protest in Ottawa.

Vigil to remember victims on 5th anniversary of attack will now be held virtually

A memorial to six men killed in the 2017 attack on a Quebec City mosque. An in-person event in Ottawa to remember the victims was cancelled on Saturday and moved online. (Julia Page/CBC)

An in-person vigil to remember the victims of a fatal attack on a Quebec City mosque exactly five years ago has been cancelled, with organizers citing safety concerns arising out of the presence of a convoy protesting vaccine mandates in Ottawa on Saturday.

The event, organized by the group Canadians United Against Hate, said it had been expecting more than 100 people at the only in-person event in the region organized to remember the Jan. 29, 2017, attack, which left six people dead and 19 wounded.

Originally meant to take place at the Human Rights Monument in downtown Ottawa, the event will now be held virtually on Saturday instead.

"With extremist voices attached to the protest and online chatter about possible violence, we started talking with police and city officials, and then early [Friday] morning we got a notice saying the venue we were going to use would be pretty much unavailable because of safety concerns," Fareed Khan, founder of Canadians United Against Hate, said in an interview with CBC News on Saturday.

He said City of Ottawa officials had notified him on Friday of the safety concerns, and his group began to consider cancelling the event. Khan said his concerns for the safety of participants was driven by the size of the crowd and the presence of protesters carrying "racist signs, the Confederate flag and other such paraphernalia which is connected to extremism and racism."

"Certainly the solemnness of the event would have been totally ruined by hundreds or thousands of people making noise, truck horns honking," he said.

Khan went on to say he felt his own freedom to assemble and mark a sombre event had been impinged on by the growing protest. When news of the convoy's journey to Ottawa began to spread, he said he heard from members of the Muslim community in Ottawa wondering if he would cancel the event.

"Of course I didn't want to, because it's capitulating to extremist elements. But I wasn't going to put people at risk of possible physical harm and possible health consequences," Khan said.

People wave flags and hold signs as a truck convoy protesting COVID-19 vaccine mandates and public health measures makes its way through downtown Ottawa on Friday. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Demonstrators in the truck convoy protest have gathered in downtown Ottawa, crowding streets with vehicles, to protest vaccine mandates, COVID-19 public health measures and the federal government.

Organizers of the core protest movement, dubbed the Freedom Convoy, have promised that the demonstrations will be peaceful. On Saturday, the organizers posted on the group's Facebook page urging protesters not to enter government buildings, harass police officers, to remain calm and not make any threats.

Ottawa police say they are preparing to deal with possible instances of violence and have warned of the risk that "social media actors" and "lone wolf individuals" may cause disruptions. Ottawa police Chief Peter Sloly said on Friday that there have been various online threats locally, nationally and internationally inciting violence, hate and criminal acts.

"We cannot ignore the direct hate language and threats, and we cannot ignore the direct attempts to incite violence and criminality in and around the demonstration,'" Sloly said.

Members of the Muslim community and others, both in Quebec and elsewhere, are marking the five-year anniversary of the mosque attack.

A gunman entered the Islamic Cultural Centre in Quebec City and opened fire on worshippers inside. Mamadou Tanou Barry, Ibrahima Barry, Khaled Belkacemi, Abdelkrim Hassane, Azzeddine Soufiane and Aboubaker Thabti were killed, and 19 others were wounded in the attack.

LISTEN | Former leader at Quebec City mosque reflects on 2017 attack: 
Five years after a gunman opened fire at a Quebec City mosque, Mohamed Labidi talks about how his community remembers the victims.

With files from CBC News