Canada's 'Islamophobic' Quebec City gets its first Muslim cemetery
In the past, Muslim residents of Quebec City had to transport their dead for more than 160 miles if they wanted an Islamic burial, despite the city having its first mosque since the late 1970s.
Today, Quebec City, the capital of Canada's only French-speaking province, has been given the go ahead for its first ever Islamic cemetery, coming at a very crucial time where the province has banned hijab wearers from holding public service jobs.
The mayor of Quebec City, Régis Labeaume, finally accented his signature to a deed of sale for a pocket of land that will become the city's first ever Muslim cemetery later this year.
The cemetery will start conducting burials in spring after the Muslim Organization of Quebec and Levis (TCOM) alliance paid $270,000 ($US 206,000) to the city in July last year.
"This is a highly appreciated moment," says Boufeldja Benabdallah, now head of the biggest mosque in Quebec City.
"In the past, we had to drive our dead 260km to bury them in the city of Montreal where there is a Muslim cemetery." The mosque that Benabdallah heads is the site of the calamitous January 2017 hate attack when a gunman sprayed and mowed down six men inside the prayer hall.
"The land for the Muslim cemetery was finally promised in 2017 after events moved slowly for 20 years," Benabdallah adds.
|70% of respondents in the Quebec province had expressed 'significant' anti-Muslim sentiment
From 1999, Quebec's first "Muslim cemetery committee" got to work, analysing some 30 lots in the metropolitan region and within a 50km radius. Several approaches and purchase offers were refused.
A plot in Saint-Apollinaire, a municipality lying 35km within Quebec City, was first mooted as a cemetery but local residents voted on a 19 to 16 council tally to refuse the establishment of a Muslim cemetery, reveals Mayor Régis Labeaume.
"How can it be that 19 (people) can stop a project by several thousand people? It doesn't make sense!" stated Mohamed Kesri, the man who was mandated by the Quebec City mosque to lead the cemetery project.
After the referendum defeat, various other proposals were explored including an idea to have a Muslim section in Quebec City multi-faith cemeteries, Kesri said. But in June 2017 after the referendum, Quebec province's parliament adopted a law that permitted municipalities to override referendums on land projects in order to give more power to local authorities and the gears shifted.
This gave power for the mayor of Quebec City to push ahead with allowing land for the cemetery.
|The land for the Muslim cemetery was finally promised in 2017
"We thank the mayor for his strength in fulfilling a promise for a Muslim cemetery in the face of a hostile and divisive debate," adds Benabdallah.
"Muslim in Quebec City have been labouring for 20 years to have our own cemetery.
"This cemetery will consolidate the will of the Muslim community of Quebec to practice the requirements and rituals of their faith, while being an integral part of their tolerant and legal society allowing everyone to live and die with dignity," he says.
Muslim identity is a hotly divisive topic in Quebec, Canada's only French-speaking province. A 2018 study in published in the Canada Review of Sociology found that 70 percent of respondents in the Quebec province had expressed "significant" anti-Muslim sentiment.
Islamophobia is widespread in the Quebec province and more prevalent here than any other province in Canada, concluded the study.
A 2017 CROP study also suggested that 34 percent of Quebec residents agreed that Muslim immigrants should outright be banned, compared with 23 percent in the rest of Canada.
Mohamed Labidi, former president of the city's mosque, which is also known as the Quebec City Islamic Cultural Centre, had his car torched by hateful assailants in 2017.
Matters escalated in June last year, when Quebec province's parliament voted a secularism law that bans public servants (teachers, prosecutors, nurses, policemen, bus drivers etc) from wearing religious symbols like hijab, cross etc on their work stations.
The edict formally called Bill21 is casually talked of as "anti-hijab law" because opponents says it will hit hard on Quebec's Muslim minorities. Furious disputes over the law have sneaked all the way to Canada's highest courts.
This January, the Canadian National Council of Muslims and other civil liberties associations have approached the country's Supreme Court to strike down the bill.
|Islamophobia is widespread in the Quebec province and more prevalent here than any other province in Canada
Quebec province's highest court rejected a challenge to the religious symbols ban on a 2-1 majority, although the justices acknowledged that banning religious symbols wearers from public jobs would do irreparable damages to careers of minorities.
However, new patterns of arrivals are transforming Quebec's Muslim community as newer immigrants, largely fleeing the war in Syria, make Quebec City their home. So for many, the city's first Muslim cemetery acts as a significant sign of inclusion.
"I invite citizens of Quebec to love each other," says mayor Labeaume. "Quebec City is changing. The rest of the province is getting more diverse. We need to start thinking about what we can do, about the steps we can take in our community, so we can all live together in harmony."
Quebec province is always an enigma, observes Nicholas Keung, an award-winning immigration and refugees staff writer at The Toronto Star.
"Quebec City's mayor has signed a deed of sale for a parcel of land that will soon become the region's first Muslim cemetery. I am always fascinated by Quebec; so open and liberal at times but also closed."
Ray Mwareya is a freelance writer in Ottawa, Canada whose work appears in The New Arab, The Guardian and Reuters
Follow him on Twitter: @RMwareya