Six years after the deadly mosque attack in Quebec City, an emotional ceremony took place marking the anniversary of the shooting — held for the first time in the same room where many of the victims were killed.
Mamadou Tanou Barry, Ibrahima Barry, Khaled Belkacemi, Abdelkrim Hassane, Azzeddine Soufiane and Aboubaker Thabti were killed shortly after evening prayers when a gunman opened fire just before 8 p.m. in the Islamic Cultural Centre in the Sainte-Foy neighbourhood.
The attack that left 17 children fatherless and a community forever scarred were commemorated as organizers also point to the importance of continuing to reflect on Islamophobia — particularly as hate and far-right extremism continues across Canada.
Mosque co-founder Boufeldja Benabdallah told those gathered that the widows of the six men insisted their fallen husbands must never be forgotten.
Speaking at a news conference at the mosque on Thursday, a spokesperson for the group organizing event said it will be the first time the community gathers inside the mosque on the anniversary. This year, it falls on a Sunday, the same day the attack occurred six years ago.
“It’s very emotionally charged,” said Maryam Bessiri, the spokesperson for the Commémoration citoyenne de l’attentat.
“It’s very significant for us. We’re asking the population and all Quebecers who want to participate, to come to the Islamic Cultural Centre on Sunday … [It’s] part of our mission to be open and share with people.”
The mosque’s doors were open most of the week to the public. In addition to private events held for the Muslim community, the public can visit the mosque between 11:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. on Sunday for the first time since the completion of the renovations in 2021. The public was also invited to the ceremony of remembrance in-person or online at 5:30 p.m.
On the second National Day of Remembrance of the Quebec City Mosque Attack and Action against Islamophobia, community members and dignitaries sat on the ground shoulder to shoulder in the prayer room where the attack happened.
The ‘only occasion’ Quebec reflects on Islamophobia
Bessiri notes that organizers and volunteers tried to use this anniversary as a jumping-off point — an opportunity to remember the lives lost while showcasing the work the Muslim community is doing to move past pervasive racism.
“For us, it gives us a voice to talk about Islamophobia, racism and also about how we have overcome the past six years and give the young people an opportunity to speak.… Each year we ask ourselves the same question about the pertinence of organizing a commemoration so that we can move beyond the tragedy that occurred,” said Bessiri.
While she applauds some of the progress over the past six years, including how the federal government declared Jan. 29, the National Day of Remembrance of the Québec City Mosque Attack and Action against Islamophobia, she says more needs to be done year-round.
“I would like to remind everyone that the commemoration on January 29 is the only occasion when we speak about Islamophobia in Quebec. We don’t speak about it outside of this, and that is unfortunate,” said Bessiri.
Trying to counter ‘always present’ far-right discourse
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told attendees it is important to send a message that violence and hatred have no place in this country at the event.
He said one way to pay tribute to the six victims is to commit to fighting racism, hatred and discrimination each day.
Bessiri noted that last year, they were planning the fifth commemoration right as the trucker convoy was starting in Ottawa — an event marked by demonstrations that pushed forward multiple far-right views.
“This shows us how fast progress can deteriorate and the discourse of the far right is always present…. That’s why in organizing the commemoration each year, in opening the doors, we are trying to counter this discourse,” said Bessiri, adding that the attacker was radicalized through extreme discourse over time.
‘The right to go to a place of worship free of fear’
Amira Elghawaby, Canada’s first and newly appointed representative to combat Islamophobia, says many assumptions about Muslim communities derive from pop culture and news stories which present a “narrow understanding of who Muslims are.”
Trudeau announced Elghawaby’s appointment on Thursday. She will advise the federal government on how to better fight discrimination against the Muslim community.
“I’m sure all of us would agree we all have the right to go to a place of worship free of fear. We all have a right to go for a walk with our family,” said Elghawaby, referring to the 2021 attack on a Muslim family in London, Ont., when a mother, father, daughter and grandmother were killed while walking in their neighbourhood, struck by a truck.
She said one of her primary concerns is that Canada has had a high number of hate-motivated fatalities against Muslims.
“That to me is shocking because I grew up here, I grew up believing in the promise of multiculturalism,” said Elghawaby.
“I believe in that promise and I’m going to really do my best to fulfil the promise of a country that is inclusive, that is diverse and that is strong because of it.”
‘Our duty to remember’
Mohamed Labidi, president of the Islamic centre, says as part of the commemoration they want to welcome non-Muslims into the mosque.
“We meet our fellow citizens with the purpose of demystifying the mosque and give them a chance to speak with Muslims to take another step toward living together as a community,” said Labidi.
“Time passes.… It’s our duty to remember.”
While the Muslim community feels a special duty to remember the attack and its victims, one survivor says Quebec society has a responsibility too.
“When we talk about society we’re talking about the government, the media, our neighbours and our colleagues at work, we’re talking about everyone. This responsibility has to be shared,” said Ahmed Cheddadi.
“I am here because I feel a responsibility toward my brothers who fell down beside me one after another.”
Before the attack, he says the media often participated in creating a “climate of Islamophobia.”
The organizers highlighted how a recent Quebec law, Bill 21 — which bans public servants from wearing religious symbols such as hijabs — undoes some of the progress the community has been trying to make.
Cheddadi said his own family is struggling with the law.
“I have a 15-year-old daughter and she doesn’t wear the hijab yet, that’s normal. But we have discussed it. She wants to be a teacher, that’s her dream. She told me, ‘Dad, do you think if I wear the hijab I will lose the opportunity to do my dream job?'” said Cheddadi as his voice broke.
“I said ‘unfortunately, yes sweetie, you will lose this opportunity in Quebec.'”
He noted the only solace he could offer her is reminding her that she could move out of the province.
Boufeldja Benabdallah, the co-founder of the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre, says this kind of limit on symbols of faith targets women and takes away a big part of their religious freedom.
“That law is hurting our community.… And that negatively impacts the effort for us to live together as a community, said Benabdallah.
He says he wants to ensure the work his community put in over the past few years is not undone by laws that divide people. He reminded people at the news conference of why they first started the tradition of commemoration in the first place.
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“The families told us on the first commemoration, ‘please we cannot forget our husbands who died in the mosque,'” said Benabdallah.
“I want to tell the family that we are standing with them. It’s an event that’s dedicated to all those who were taken.”