OTTAWA — When a gunman killed six members of a Quebec City mosque in January, five of the victims, all of them immigrants to Canada, were sent to their countries of origin for burial. Only one was buried in Canada, at a Muslim-run cemetery near Montreal, three hours away.
That’s because Quebec City’s growing Muslim community doesn’t have its own cemetery despite years of trying. After a divisive referendum on Sunday, it still doesn’t.
Residents of St-Apollinaire, a town of 6,000 about 20 miles southwest of Quebec City, voted to turn down an application for a zoning change to allow the Islamic Cultural Center, owner of the mosque where the deadly shooting occurred, to open a cemetery.
The vote was open to only 49 residents living adjacent to the proposed cemetery site; 36 turned up. Sixteen voted for the cemetery, while 19 voted against. One ballot was spoiled.
Despite the small numbers involved, however, the decision was front-page news in Canada — a sign that some say shows that xenophobia is alive and well in a country known as a welcoming place for immigrants and a haven for tolerance.
“Thousands of Muslims in Quebec City have been told we don’t want you,” said Mohamed Kesri, secretary of the Islamic Cultural Center, adding that his community would consider its alternatives, including a complaint to the provincial human rights commission. “Ignorance and misunderstanding have won the day,” added Mohamed Labidi, president of the center.
Bernard Ouellet, mayor of St-Apollinaire, backed the cemetery proposal. He blamed its rejection on fear and misinformation. Also speaking in favor of the project was Cardinal Gérald Cyprien Lacroix, Quebec City’s archbishop, who pleaded with voters to allow the cemetery to proceed as “a mark of respect for another religion.”
Like much of rural Quebec, St-Apollinaire is overwhelmingly white, French-speaking and Catholic (nominally). Statistics show not a single Muslim, Jew, Sikh or Hindu in the community.
Alexandre Bissonnette, 27, a Quebec City man with far-right political views, has been charged with six counts of first-degree murder in the January mosque attack and is awaiting trial. In the outpouring of public emotion that followed the massacre, politicians promised to resolve the years-long cemetery issue.
An undertaker in St-Apollinaire offered to sell a 65,000-square-foot piece of land adjacent to his funeral parlor to the Islamic center, enough for 1,000 plots, but when local residents found out about the plan, they took advantage of Quebec laws that allow residents directly affected by zoning changes to force a referendum.
At a public meeting in March, opponents of the project voiced concerns that once there was a cemetery for Muslims, a mosque and a school could soon follow. “We’re already feeling invaded,” one opponent of the project later told the Globe and Mail newspaper.
Although Canadians generally hold positive views of immigrants and opened their arms to the 40,000 Syrian refugees welcomed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, intolerance of Muslims makes its presence known, particularly in Quebec.
According to a poll carried out in March by CROP, a research firm, for the French network of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., 23 percent of respondents across Canada favored a ban on Muslim immigration like the kind pushed by President Trump across the border. In Quebec, the figure was 32 percent.
The debate over veiled women has been particularly strident in Quebec, reflecting in part the influence of the political debate over Islam in France. The same CROP survey showed that 67 percent of Quebec residents wanted to ban public servants from wearing religious garb at work, compared with 34 percent in the rest of Canada.
Yannick Boucher, an anthropology lecturer at the University of Montreal who has studied Muslim burial practices in Quebec, said the referendum result in St-Apollinaire was based on “fear of the other” and is part of a rejection of Muslims in Quebec that leads to higher rates of unemployment and higher rates of hate crimes against the community.
Boucher estimates that when Muslims die in the province, up to two-thirds are sent back for burial to their countries of origin, particularly in North Africa, because of the lack of cemetery space and the sense that they are not fully accepted by their new society.
Alternatives are emerging, however. A privately owned, nondenominational cemetery in a Quebec City suburb announced recently that it will set aside a section of its facility for Muslim burials.