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'It could have been us': Canadians rally on two-year anniversary of mosque massacre

Two years after a gunman killed six worshipers at a Quebec City mosque, the Muslim community says work to combat hate isn't over
Six Muslim men were killed when a gunman opened fire shortly after evening prayers at the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre on 29 January 2017 (Jillian Kestler-D'Amours/MEE)

MONTREAL, Canada - Khaled Labdelli knows just how quickly people can forget.

That's why he stood alongside dozens of people Tuesday evening, despite the sub-zero temperature and blistering snow, to remember the Muslim men whose lives were brutally cut short in a 2017 shooting at a mosque in Quebec City, only a few hundred kilometres away.

"I'm here to commemorate the loss of the six people, killed due to ignorance of the other," Labdelli told Middle East Eye, standing in front of six large photographs of the men at a candlelit vigil to mark the two-year anniversary of the attack.

"Time goes by quickly," he said. "I think we always have to talk about this because people forget fast."

On 29 January 2017, Alexandre Bissonnette walked into the Islamic Cultural Centre in Quebec City shortly after evening prayers and opened fire on the approximately Muslim 50 worshipers inside.

Within moments, Bissonnette's weapon was empty - and nineteen people were injured and six men were dead: Aboubaker Thabti, Abdelkrim Hassane, Khaled Belkacemi, Mamadou Tanou Barry, Ibrahima Barry and Azzedine Soufiane.

The attack on a house of worship sent immediate shockwaves across Canada and sparked ongoing conversations about Islamophobia, hate crimes and racist rhetoric targeting some of the country's most vulnerable groups.

Labdelli, a high school teacher, told MEE he still gets upset when he thinks about what happened.

He said he has many things in common with one of the victims, too, which makes the attack all the more difficult.

Like Labdelli, Belkacemi originally hailed from Algeria. The two men also taught at universities - Labdelli did so in his native Algeria, while Belkacemi was a professor at the University of Laval in Quebec City - and they share a first name.

"I go to this mosque," Labdelli said, pointing across the street to the Islamic Centre of Verdun, a southwest neighbourhood of Montreal.

"I say to myself, 'It could have happened to me like it happened to the others.' We never know."

Anti-immigrant views

In the months that followed the attack, more details emerged about what pushed Bissonnette to commit his crime as he faced multiple charges of murder and attempted murder.

A university student, Bissonette espoused anti-immigrant views and appeared to be fascinated by a bevy of far-right ideologues, frequently perusing the websites and social media feeds of US President Donald Trump, France’s Marine Le Pen, right-wing Daily Wire editor Ben Shapiro and Fox News' Laura Ingraham, among others.

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The families of the victims gave moving interviews and testified in court during his trial, recalling the horrific attack in gruesome detail and calling for justice for their loved-ones and the cherished community members they lost.

With Bissonnette's guilty plea last year - on six counts of murder and six counts of attempted murder, but no terrorism charges - Muslim communities across Canada slowly began to heal.

But some longstanding issues remain unresolved.

Safa Chebbi, a Montreal community organiser, said earlier on Tuesday that "violence against Muslim communities takes place in a context in which fear of the other is instrumentalised and migration criminalised".

"Such discourse is reproduced in public debates, in the media, through social media, and in bills such as the ban on wearing 'religious symbols,'" she said in a press release, referring to a string of proposed laws in the province of Quebec that have sought to restrict what public-sector employees wear on the job.

The most recent government proposal would bar teachers, judges and other officials from wearing headscarves. The regulations would also apply to Sikh men who wear turbans and Jewish men who wear kippahs.

"All of this creates fertile terrain for hate speech and acts of violence against Muslims and other marginalised communities in our society," Chebbi said.

Hate crimes in Canada

In fact, recent data shows that hate-fuelled violence continues to be a problem across Canada.

In November, Statistics Canada released its more recent numbers for 2017 which showed that anti-Muslim hate crimes nearly tripled compared to 2016, from 41 incidents reported to police to 117 incidents.

The number of anti-Muslim hate incidents actually peaked in February 2017 in the immediate aftermath of the Quebec mosque attack.

The names of the men killed in the attack were on display at the vigil in Montreal (Jillian Kestler-D'Amours/MEE)

That year, police received a total of 2,073 hate-crime reports across the country, an all-time high since the data was first collected in 2009.

Advocacy groups have long said that these figures are a vast under-representation, however, as most hate crimes go unreported for fear of retaliation or shame - meaning the problem could be much bigger.

Leila Nasr, communications coordinator for the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM), said Muslim communities across Canada are in a sombre mood on the two-year anniversary of the attack.

“We're sort of in this period of reflection on what happened in the past, but then also anxiety on what's about to come in the future,” she told Middle East Eye, pointing to the fact that Bissonnette’s sentencing hearing is scheduled for early February.

Nasr said the conversation in the immediate aftermath of the attack rightly focused on the Muslim community and the role Islamophobia played in what happened.

Over the past two years, however, people in Canada have “evolved to have also broader conversations about not just Islamophobia, but hate and intolerance in general”, she said.

No matter what country you live in, when you hear about attacks like these ... it sends shockwaves. There is that sense of shared humanity and shared grief when things like this happen

- Leila Nasr, National Council of Canadian Muslims

Nasr said the question has now become: “How can we tackle not just Islamophobia, but the hate that breeds these kinds of incidents more generally?”

“How can we get to the foundations of where this racism comes from? And how can we work together as diverse communities to bring solutions forward to these problems?”

Last week, two men that local media said were affiliated with far-right hate groups, entered the country's oldest mosque, Al Rashid, in Edmonton, a city in western Canada, and intimidated congregants.

The men appeared to be scouting the building, witnesses said, and later were filmed confronting Muslim community members in the mosque's parking lot. Police are investigating the incident, Canadian media reported.

‘Shared grief’

Late last year, NCCM led more than 100 community groups in calling on the Canadian government to designate 29 January as a National Day of Action against Hate and Intolerance in honour of the Quebec mosque attack victims.

Nasr said the effort aims to keep a conversation going around the hateful rhetoric that underpins acts of violence, such as what happened two years ago.

"I think no matter what country you live in, when you hear about attacks like these - on such a massive scale as January 29 was - it sends shockwaves. There is that sense of shared humanity and shared grief when things like this happen," Nasr said.

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"I think it's a good reminder that the kind of rhetoric that fuels attacks like these is not just confined within the borders of any one country."

Eric Seguin, a representative of the Islamic Centre of Verdun, said he still couldn't "describe the fear that we felt - the fright and the terror” when he and other Muslim worshipers returned to their mosque to pray the morning after the attack.

Even though the shooting took place hundreds of kilometres away, they came to the "simple realisation that it could have been us", Seguin told the crowd at Tuesday's vigil in Montreal.

“What could have distinguished a mosque in Verdun from a mosque in Quebec City, from a mosque in Drummondville?" he asked. "We are all Quebecers."

However, Seguin said the outpouring of support the mosque received from the community after the shooting ultimately showed him that ignorance can be beaten.

"It helped us understand that there’s much more to build together in our beautiful city than there is fear between us."