The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why does ‘progressive’ Quebec have so many massacres?

A gunman attacked a mosque in Canada's Quebec City, killing at least six worshipers and injuring eight others as they finished their evening prayers on Jan. 29. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)
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J.J. McCullough, a political commentator and cartoonist from Vancouver, is a columnist at Loonie Politics.

As Canadian politicians and journalists scramble for tidy, ideologically pleasing narratives in the wake of this week’s senseless slaughter at a Quebec City mosque, one disturbing fact has gone conspicuously unmentioned: A disproportionate share of the country’s massacres occur in the province of Quebec.

I was born in 1984. Since then, Quebec has experienced at least six high-profile episodes of attempted public mass murder.

On the morning of May 8, 1984, Denis Lortie walked into the Quebec provincial legislature carrying multiple weapons and opened fire, shooting 16 people, three fatally. Only his ignorance of the parliamentary timetable (few politicians were sitting at that hour) and the heroism of René Marc Jalbert, the sergeant-at-arms, prevented greater slaughter.

Five years later, on Dec. 6, 1989, a 25-year-old misogynist named Marc Lépine strolled methodically through the classrooms of Quebec’s École Polytechnique de Montréal, a rifle in his arms, and murdered 13 female students and a school employee and injured 14 others before committing suicide. The incident is commemorated annually across Canada as a case study in violence against women.

Three years after that, on Aug. 24, 1992, disgruntled Soviet-born assistant professor Valery Fabrikant shot and killed four of his colleagues with a handgun at Montreal’s Concordia University. Fourteen years after that, yet another Quebec school became the setting for a bloodbath when, on Sept. 13, 2006, 25-year-old Kimveer Gill roamed the halls of Dawson College in a black trench coat and shot 17 students, killing one.

On the evening of Quebec’s 2012 provincial election, a Anglo-Quebecer named Richard Henry Bain attempted to assassinate the province’s newly elected secessionist premier, Pauline Marois, at a victory rally along with — in his words — “as many separatists as I could.” A jammed rifle ultimately resulted in only two casualties, stagehands Denis Blanchette, who was killed, and Dave Courage, who was wounded by the same bullet. It was, declared a judge, an attempt to use violence “to change the results of the election and the course of history.”

And now we have the Quebec City mosque massacre of 2017, in which as many as 25 Muslim men were shot, six (so far) fatally, by Alexandre Bissonnette, as they bowed for evening prayers. Bissonnette’s motives are still unknown, but early speculation centers around allegations of Islamophobic activity on social media. His Facebook likes include popular Quebec political parties such as the separatist Parti Quebecois and New Democratic Party of Canada.

In short, my lifetime has overlapped with at least one spectacular act of Quebec public violence every five years or so. No other province can claim the same.

French-speaking Quebec is often held up (and certainly holds itself up) as Canada’s most essential region, home to a precious set of particularities that help make Canada the marvelous place it is. On such issues as postsecondary education, child care and (ironically enough) gun control, progressive Canadians laud its social-democratic policies as moral exemplars, and the province has played an outsize role in pushing Canadian politics to the left.

Criticism of Quebec, meanwhile, is deeply taboo. In a 2006 essay, Globe and Mail columnist Jan Wong posited a theory that Quebec’s various lone nuts, many of whom were not of pure French-Canadian stock, were predictably alienated from a province that places such a high premium on cultural conformity. She was denounced by a unanimous vote in the Canadian Parliament and sank into a career-ruining depression. The current events magazine Maclean’s ran a cover story in 2010 arguing that Quebec, where old-fashioned mafia collusion between government contractors, unions and politicians is still common, was easily “the most corrupt province in Canada.” That, too, was denounced by a unanimous vote of Parliament.

Privately, English Canadians are far less defensive. They grumble about Quebec’s dark history of anti-Semitism, religious bigotry and pro-fascist sentiment, facts which are rarely included in otherwise self-flagellating official narratives of Canadian history. They complain about the exaggerated deference the province gets from Ottawa as a “distinct society” and “nation-within-a-nation,” and its various French-supremacist language and assimilation laws, which they blame for creating a place that’s inhospitable, arrogant and, yes, noticeably more racist than the Canadian norm. And now, they have good reason to observe that the province seems to produce an awful lot of lunatics prone to public massacres, who often explicitly justify their violence with arguments of dissatisfaction towards Quebec’s unique culture.

The mosque shooting has been quickly politicized by the Canadian left who have seized upon its useful victims to say the sort of things they were going to say anyway: Canada is both a wicked Islamophobic place that must check its various privileges and a multicultural utopia whose pride and empathy for its Muslim community knows no bounds. Rather than drag the entire country along for this tendentious ride, it might be more useful to narrow the focus.