QUEBEC — A Muslim Quebecois rapper addressed the solemn crowd gathered Wednesday night to commemorate the third anniversary of the Quebec City mosque attack, and his words reflected the inherent politics of the tragedy and its aftermath.
In front of survivors, politicians, gun control activists and city residents, the artist and historian — who goes by the name Webster — said Quebec society is still afraid to face its Islamophobia three years after a gunman shot dead six men in a mosque on Jan. 29, 2017.
"Don't tell me that this commemoration tonight isn't political — because it is, especially now," he told the crowd gathered at St-Mathieu Church.
Earlier, the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre — where the killings occurred — opened its doors to the community. Hours later, at the church a few blocks away, Premier Francois Legault and other politicians spoke about the need for all Quebecers to come together against hatred. The event's organizers said 300 free tickets for the event had been reserved in just over 24 hours.
But despite the warm words and the sense of unity, the provincial government's Bill 21 — passed in the legislature last June — still cast a cloud over the gathering. And Webster wasn't prepared to let the issue go.
"Are we going to let the government decide what women can wear and when they can wear it?" he asked rhetorically, to extended applause and chants of "Bravo!" from those in the church. Bill 21 bans some civil servants from wearing religious symbols at work — something civil rights groups and many in the Muslim community say directly targets Muslim women.
The men who died included: Mamadou Tanou Barry, 42, Abdelkrim Hassane, 41, Khaled Belkacemi, 60, Aboubaker Thabti, 44, Azzeddine Soufiane, 57, and Ibrahima Barry, 39.
They left behind their wives and 17 children between them. Several other worshippers were injured when a gunman opened fire as evening prayers drew to a close.
Legault didn't hear Webster's words, because he left the ceremony before the rapper took the mic. Earlier, the premier told the gathering that the shooting is a giant scar on all of the province.
"I wanted to come here to send you a message in the name of all the Quebecois people," Legault said. "To tell you, the families and people close to the victims: 'we are by your side.' "
Quebec City Mayor Regis Labeaume said the shooting was a disaster for the city. He told the crowd that love was not out of fashion, and that the community needed to evolve together.
Earlier in the day, one of the survivors, Ahmed Cheddadi, said the mosque attack was a horrifying event that shocked Quebec society and should spur a move to eliminate discrimination.
"We are here to denounce this act, barbaric and inhuman, that took place in our democratic, secular country, where the rights of people and liberty of religion are guaranteed by the Constitution," Cheddadi said at a news conference, calling for an inclusive Quebec where love triumphs over hate and racism is defeated.
Choking back tears, Cheddadi said everyone has a moral responsibility to come together.
"We will never accept that days like Jan. 29, 2017, ever happen again, in a mosque, in a church or in a synagogue."
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged the anniversary by calling on Canadians to honour the memory of the victims.
"Today, we mourn those who were senselessly killed, and suffered at the hands of ignorance, Islamophobia, and racism," Trudeau said in a statement.
Boufeldja Benabdallah, president of the mosque, said the provincial government hasn't done enough to help restore bridges with the Muslim community, speaking of a fractured Quebec society where minorities do not feel protected.
He said it is the responsibility of legislators to adopt laws to protect citizens, whatever their origins or their beliefs, adding that the goal should be laws and programs "designed by the government to ensure society is balanced and not unbalanced as it is today."
In a recent interview, Benabdallah said that despite some recent progress, including the creation of the region's first Islamic cemetery and a million-dollar project to enlarge and secure the mosque, the province's controversial Bill 21 continued to be a source of frustration.
"Once again, we feel in the minority and targeted, especially the Muslim woman who finds herself penalized," Benabdallah said, calling the legislation a significant setback.
Legault told reporters before the ceremony that he disagrees that Bill 21 targets the Muslim community.
"Bill 21 is putting a framework to make sure we don't have extremes in Quebec, including racism," said Legault. He said the law aimed at public servants accounts for just one per cent of jobs.
"I think that it's a fair deal, a good compromise, a moderate law, it's less than what we have in many European countries," the premier added.
Alexandre Bissonnette pleaded guilty to the killings and last year was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole for 40 years — a sentence that was the subject of appeals by both the Crown and defence during a hearing at the Quebec Court of Appeal Monday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 29, 2020.