One family’s struggle, one year after the Quebec City mosque shooting

In the wake of last year’s mosque massacre, Yousseff and Mulka Cherif wonder if they are better off leaving Quebec altogether
Sadiya Ansari, Chatelaine

*Names of the Cherif family have been changed.

On a sleepy Sunday evening late last January, Yousseff Cherif, a 44-year-old IT professional in Quebec City, was preparing to leave the house, hoping to catch isha, the final prayer of the day at the Grand Mosque, one of two mosques in the city run by the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec. It would take him 12 minutes or so to drive from his quiet suburban neighbourhood, a trip he made frequently, shuttling his nine-year-old son Ramy to the mosque for weekly Arabic classes, and catching up with friends after prayers. Yousseff’s wife, Mulka, was unable to go as often since she cared full-time for the couple’s six-year-old daughter Shayma, who has disabilities.

“Why don’t you stay?” Ramy piped up from the couch. Yousseff glanced at the time. It was 7:25 p.m. Prayer would start in five minutes and he was already late so he opted to stay home, chatting with Ramy until the boy went to bed 20 minutes later. Just after 8 p.m. Yousseff received a call from a panicked friend, asking if he was at the mosque.

Shortly after isha ended on January 29, 2017, a man parked his car in front of the men’s entrance to the mosque. As he stepped inside, armed with a rifle and handgun, he opened fire on the first two worshippers he encountered, Ibrahim Barry, 39, a public servant and Mamadou Tanou Barry, 42, a computer technician. The gunman continued firing, killing Azzedine Soufiane, 57, a butcher who owned a nearby shop; Khaled Belkacemi, 60, a Université Laval professor; Abdelkrim Hassane, 41, a public servant; and Aboubaker Thabti, 44, an employee at a poultry processing plant. Another 19 people were injured, including Aymen Derbali, 41, who had heroically attempted to distract the gunman to protect others. In all, the shooting left six women grieving their husbands, and 17 children without fathers.

Half an hour after the attack, a 27-year-old French-Canadian named Alexandre Bissonnette, called police to turn himself in. A Laval student who lived near the mosque, Bissonnette was later described by peers as having recently gone through a transformation, from a harmless campus conservative to a far-right troll who espoused anti-immigrant and anti-feminist views.

The city — and the country — was in shock. Quebec City has one of the lowest crime rates in the country and there had been just a single homicide in all of 2016. Yousseff and Mulka were devastated. They knew anti-Muslim sentiments existed in the city, but never imagined it would translate into this kind of violence, and led to the deaths of people they knew and cared for.

In the following days, their anxiety was partially soothed by an immediate and widespread show of solidarity. Teachers and staff at Ramy’s school took extra care with him. Mulka, who wears the hijab, was embraced by strangers expressing their condolences. Vigils were held across the country, and politicians spoke out forcefully against the attack.

Addressing Parliament the day after the shooting, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said, “This was a group of innocents targeted for practicing their faith. Make no mistake: This was a terrorist attack.” Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard asked Quebeckers to stand with Muslims. “Quebec and Canada have to remain a beacon of tolerance,” he said. “It’s normal in times of crisis to talk about inclusion, but the real challenge will be to maintain that two weeks from now.”

Couillard was right — this mood of solidarity quickly dissipated. Even though Bissonnette had turned himself in, the name of a second suspect emerged the next day. Laval student Mohamed Belkhadir, who went to the mosque after hearing gunshots while shovelling snow nearby, was detained overnight after running away from police when he mistook an officer for the gunman. Belkhadir’s name was widely publicized, fuelling a conspiracy theory that falsely claimed Muslims were behind the attack. Fox News in the U.S. left their incorrect story online so long that the prime minister’s office issued a directive to the network to take it down.

Yousseff and Mulka were among those who felt a sharp turn from sympathy to impatience with their mourning within the first week after the attack. Mulka was terrified by the volume of hateful comments she heard on TV and read online while following news coverage. Commenters said they should stop acting like victims, that their religion wasn’t welcome in Quebec, and that they weren’t welcome, either. “People [online] were enraged with Muslims,” she told Chatelaine at her home in November. She was disturbed by the dissonance between the great decency she felt among her neighbours and the vitriol she encountered online.

The mosque attack coincided with the early days of Donald Trump’s presidency in the U.S., and his proposed travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries. At the time, many Americans held up Canada as a beacon of tolerance in comparison. But following the shooting, Canadians began asking themselves: How could an attack of this scale and fuelled by such hatred happen here? And now, as we approach the anniversary of the tragedy, it’s clear the country has still not yet reckoned with the hateful ideas that inspired it.

For Yousseff and Mulka, the shooting and events of the past year have forced them to consider questions that cut much closer to home: Are they safe? Will their children ever be seen as Canadians and Quebeckers? After spending years building a life in Quebec, would they be better off leaving? If so, where else could they go?

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to a large crowd gathered near the Grand Mosque for a vigil the day after the shooting. Photo by Roger Lemoyne.

According to Chedly Belkhodja, a professor at Concordia University who studies immigration policy and integration, the focus on Muslims in Quebec is, in part, a response to their increased visibility over the past 15 years. The majority of Muslims living in the province are newcomers and nearly half of them have arrived since 2001. This is the result of the province’s own recruitment efforts: Quebec is the only province that controls its own immigration and it favours Francophones, many of whom are from Muslim-majority countries like Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, which are former colonies and protectorates of France. (Most immigrants in Quebec, however, are not from Muslim countries.)

The growth of Muslim immigrants reflects the province’s recruitment efforts to boost its labour force and combat its aging population. Despite bringing in around 50,000 immigrants annually since 2009, employers are still dealing with shortages.

As young, educated French speakers who wanted to settle down and raise a family, Mulka and Yousseff are exactly the type of immigrants that can help offset Quebec’s aging population and labour force shortages. The couple met in Tunisia. Mulka came to Canada first in 2001 when she was 20, to pursue a marketing degree at Laval. She held American citizenship, but the violent crime rate and lack of healthcare coverage dissuaded her from settling there. Canada was a much more attractive option, and Quebec especially so because of her deep love of the French language. Yousseff followed three years later, deciding to pursue an MBA at Laval, and the two eventually married.

The couple lived in Montreal for three years, but they settled in the smaller, picturesque city up the St. Lawrence River to raise their family; it was less congested, there were solid job opportunities, and they didn’t want their children to be isolated in an ethnic enclave. Of the approximately 243,000 Muslims living in Quebec, fewer than 10,000 are in Quebec City, a city of over half a million. “If you want to live with Quebeckers, with Canadians, [to be], as they say, Quebecois de souche, [then Quebec City is] really the place you can do it,” Yousseff says, referring to a French term meaning “Quebec from the root.”

He had a great job and Mulka decided to stay home for the first few years of her children’s lives. Shayma, who was born in 2011 with a rare genetic syndrome, has already had a dozen surgeries, Mulka has been devoted to her care full-time since her birth.

Yousseff and Mulka feel Quebec has been good to them and good for their children. They’re grateful for the excellent care Shayma has received, at the hospital and at accessible daycare programs, and now at a public school that caters to students with special needs. In turn, they have invested heavily in Quebec. “Integrating is not forgetting your roots and becoming like the other person,” Mulka says. “It’s understanding the other, knowing their history.” But often, she has found that others are disinterested in her culture and history, or worse, hostile towards it. She worries this climate has affected her son: Ramy went through a phase before the shooting where he was embarrassed to have her around because she wore the veil.

Belkhodja says that Quebec’s approach to integration is distinct from the rest of the country because Quebeckers tend to view the Canadian model of multiculturalism as a patchwork approach to identity with “no common ground.” Instead, he says, interculturalism is emphasized— a recognition and respect for diversity with the understanding that there is a dominant French-Canadian culture to which immigrants should adapt.

“Quebec wants to recruit immigrants who speak French because they want French to be the dominant language in Quebec,” he says. “But they also want immigrants integrate into [their] culture. It’s different from the rest of Canada — there’s a strong attachment to [Quebec] identity, to a French background… and a strong sense of homogeneity.”

Accommodation and integration can sometimes feel like a one-way process. Yousseff says common understanding and acceptance shouldn’t be solely the responsibility of newcomers. “It takes the effort of both sides,” he says. “You, yourself as an immigrant, but the other side needs to integrate you — in their minds.”

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Police and forensic experts gather outside the mosque the day after the shooting. Photo by Roger Lemoyne.

Tensions over immigration and accommodation aren’t problems unique to Quebec, of course. Canadians can be quick to point out our national politics don’t have the tribal tendencies of our neighbours (see: “meanwhile in Canada”), but a scan of recent events proves otherwise. The 2015 federal election was marked by then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s promise of restrictions on the niqab, while two of his cabinet members, Chris Alexander and Kellie Leitch, suggested a “barbaric cultural practices hotline.”

That same year Statistics Canada reported a 60 percent increase in hate crimes against Muslims compared to 2014. In February, two windows at a Muslim high school in Montreal were punctured by what appeared to be bullet holes. In June, a kabob restaurant owned by two Muslims in Calgary found “f—k Islam” spray-painted outside of it. And in November, a 30-year-old Muslim woman in Torontowas punched repeatedly after being approached by two men yelling profanities at her, including “terrorist.”

These kinds of incidents led Liberal backbencher Iqra Khalid to introduce M-103 in December 2016, a non-binding motion for Parliament to recognize Islamophobia and commit to studying systemic racial and religious discrimination. A week after the Quebec City shooting, M-103 become the centre of a peculiar controversy. Many prominent Conservatives, including those running for the party’s leadership, claimed recognizing Islamophobia would stifle free speech. The most outlandish claim the Khalid heard was that M-103 was the beginning of sharia law in Canada. “I just didn’t see the connection,” Khalid says. “To me it [revealed] a level of ignorance that led to that fear, which is in very bare bones terms is the very definition of Islamophobia.

Khalid became the target of hate mail, including death threats, some of which she read out in the House of Commons to make the point that the backlash to M-103 was evidence of the very type of hate she was trying to get Parliament to acknowledge.

Hostility towards newcomers and members of particular religious group has a long history in Canada. Roman Catholics and Jewish immigrants were routinely accused of being loyal to their faith before their country, says Doug Saunders, a columnist at the Globe and Mail and author of the 2012 book The Myth of the Muslim Tide. But he says intolerance has taken on a different dimension when it comes to Muslims. Terrorist attacks in the name of Islam have coincided with Muslims migration to Canada, reinforcing myths that the religion is violent and its followers want to destroy Western civilization. And in the digital age, these conspiracy theories are more rampant and viral than ever.

Saunders notes that Bissonnette was a consumer of these ideas and acknowledges that extremist attacks could happen again. He’s more worried, however, about the normalization of anti-Muslim sentiment and “the rise of intolerant beliefs among people who are otherwise quite tolerant.”

If these myths take hold within mainstream politics it could mean limits on immigration, bans on the hijab and aggressive racial profiling. In Saunders’ view, Islamophobia hasn’t been as successfully politically mobilized here as it has in the U.S and parts of Europe. But he’s not convinced that Canada is immune. “My worry,” he says, “is that there is possibly a [political] victory through bigotry and intolerance in Canada.”

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A service to honour the victims was held shortly after the shooting at the Maurice Richard Arena. Photo by Roger Lemoyne.

One jurisdiction where these ideas have gained some political traction is in Quebec. While Muslims aren’t the only religious minority to bump against the Quebecois commitment to secularism, it’s certainly the religion that is used the most often as an example of this tension.

The Quiet Revolution of the 1960s severed the heavily influential Roman Catholic Church from public life. Since then, secularism has been a marker of Quebecois identity, says Geneviève Zubrzycki, a professor at the University of Michigan and the author of Beheading the Saint: Nationalism, Religion, and Secularism in Quebec.

This resistance to religious influence has sometimes revealed an ugly side when it comes to non-Christians. The town of Hérouxville famously passed a code of conduct for immigrants in 2007, banning the stoning of women and endorsing co-ed swimming. Even though no Muslims lived in town, the code was largely understood to be targeting them.

Controversies like these led to the Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences, an inquiry led by academics Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor. Their report, published in 2008, found that Quebeckers had fears about losing the gains made during the Quiet Revolution, including gender equality and secularism. It also found that, at times, immigrants can become scapegoats for these complex insecurities. 

One example: in 2013, the Parti Quebecois government put forward a “Charter of Values,” a bill that sought to ban all public servants from wearing religious garb. It would have affected those who wear kippahs and turbans, but it was hijab-wearing Muslim woman who were seen as most representative of religious oppression and anti-secularism.

“Muslim women have become a symbol of a certain form of religion that a lot of Quebecois reject,” Zubrzycki says. “As in France, the hijab is becoming the core of the debate.” She adds that Muslim women’s expression of faith raised particular concern for some non-Muslim Quebec women who remembered life before the Quiet Revolution. These women had fought hard for equal rights and some view the hijab as a throwback to an overbearing symbol they associate with the Catholic church — the nun’s habit.

WATCH: Hero of Quebec mosque massacre recalls tragedy

Whatever the cause of discomfort with the hijab, niqab and burqa — whether it’s rooted in this history or is the result of ignorance or intolerance — the consequence for Muslim women is the same. Women who cover their hair or face are a visible target. Mulka experienced this even before the mosque shooting. She’s has been the object of stares, middle fingers at red lights and confrontations with strangers in shopping malls.

During the debate over the Charter of Values, the climate was ugly enough for Mulka and Yousseff to consider leaving Quebec. “I was really scared and stressed during that time,” she recalls. She was particularly worried about her kids’ futures, and how they would feel growing up in a place where they didn’t always feel welcome. But at the time Shayma was a toddler and in and out of the hospital frequently, so they dropped the idea of leaving without exploring it more seriously.

In 2014, the Parti Québécois and its Charter were defeated, but there remained a rising tide of anti-Muslim narratives within the province. On popular talk radio shows — nicknamed radio poubelles, or “trash radio”— right-wing shock jocks like FM 93’s Éric Duhaime and Radio X’s Jeff Fillion routinely slurred Islam and Muslims. And these views proved to be extremely popular: A 2015 report by Dominique Payette, a Université Laval journalism professor and former Parti Quebecois candidate, found low-budget newsrooms used provocative opinions to drive ratings, targeting “angry white men” and stoking xenophobic fears.

In 2016, just six months before the shooting, a bloody pig’s head had been delivered to the mosque in the middle of Ramadan, Islam’s holiest month. The head, wrapped in cellophane, was accompanied with a note reading, “Bonne [sic] appetit.” The president of the mosque at the time, Mohamed Yangui, expressed his community’s hurt, while Premier Couillard called the act “despicable.”

Duhaime, formerly a Toronto Sun columnist and Rebelmedia contributor, dismissed the incident as a joke on his show: “Where does it say in the Criminal Code that I don’t have the right to give a pig head?”

Mohamed El-Hafid, an imam who was at the Grand Mosque the night of the 2017 shooting, was a guest on Duhaime’s show after the pig’s head incident. He was horrified by Duhaime’s dismissal of it, and what it seemed to presage. “I asked him, ‘Are we going to wait for people to die?’ That’s what I said,” El-Hafid recalls. 

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La Meute and Storm Alliance march through the streets of Quebec City on Nov. 25, 2017. Photo by Sadiya Ansari.

A year after the attack at the Grand Mosque, the story that gripped the country so fiercely seems to have been largely forgotten. And the hate that motivated it — an anger towards Muslims so great that it led a young man to shoot innocent people in their house of worship — has largely not been confronted.

Despite the prime minister characterizing it as “a terrorist attack,” Bissonnette has not been charged with terrorism. He has been charged with six counts of first-degree murder and six counts of attempted murder. Saunders sees this as an extension of the general attitudes towards the attack. He says Canadians haven’t fully processed the pervasive and influential nature of hateful ideas about religious and racial minorities, and that even one person willing to act violently could result in another tragedy like the one we saw last year.

“The general neglect of this incident was fairly shocking,” Saunders says. “Usually there’s a long period of national self-examination. Certainly, this Quebec City shooting goes on the list of truly horrific events carried out in the name of intolerant ideals — yet it basically disappeared from the Canadian consciousness very, very, quickly.”

Attempts to mark Jan. 29, the anniversary of the attack, as a day of action against Islamophobia by the National Council of Canadian Muslims haven’t been successful. Premier Couillard rejected the idea, as did the province’s two largest opposition parties, the Parti Québécois and Coalition Avenir Québec. “We believe that it is better to emphasize collectively our commitment against the phenomenon of racism and discrimination, rather than singling out one of its manifestations,” Couillard said in early January.

But there’s evidence that hatred against one particular group continues to thrive. In Quebec City, from 2015 to 2016, the number of hate crimes grew from 25 to 57, 21 of them targeting Muslims. By late 2017 there were nearly double the number of incidents against Muslims in Quebec City as the year before. Some of these incidents targeted the very mosque where the shooting happened.

In July, a defaced quran was delivered to the mosque as a debate raged over a proposal to build a Muslim cemetery in Saint-Apollinaire, a small town of 6,000 outside Quebec City. The quran was accompanied by a note suggesting the mosque build the cemetery on a hog farm.

The project had been in the works since 2016, and while city council had approved it, surrounding landowners had the final say. The proposal was quashed by a vote of 19 to 16 in a local referendum of those landowners. “I see this as a phenomenon of fear,” Saint-Apollinaire mayor Bernard Ouellet told The Globe and Mail at the time. “People put all Muslims in the same basket and see them as radicals.”

On Aug. 4, the municipality of Quebec City sold land to the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec to build the cemetery within the city. Two days later, the car belonging to president of the mosque, Mohamed Labidi, was torched. It took police more than a month to find suspects and consider labeling it a hate crime. Mosque officials and Mayor Régis Labeaume were perplexed, with the mayor telling the media that “it would be a strange coincidence” if the two events weren’t related. A few days later, excrement was thrown at the mosque.

That month, the provincial Liberal government amended its proposed Bill 62, which bans anyone who covered their faces — effectively meaning Muslim women who wear a burqa or niqab — from working in public service. It added new provisions to exclude anyone with a covered face from giving and receiving public services — in essence, denying them access to daycare, transit, libraries and schools. Despite widespread outrage, the government passed Bill 62 into law in October.

Meanwhile, threads of the same narrative that inspired the bill — that Muslim women are oppressed by their culture — have been picked up by far-right, anti-immigrant groups. A study by researchers Barbara Perry, a professor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, and Ryan Scrivens, a post-doctoral fellow at Concordia, found there are at least 100 white supremacist groups in Canada, and that number has likely grown since the conclusion of their study in 2015. While some of anti-immigrant groups gaining followers in Quebec, like Storm Alliance and Germany-based PEGIDA, have members across the country, others, like La Meute, are homegrown.

La Meute and Storm Alliance joined forces in November to protest the government’s plans to hold consultations on systemic racism in Quebec. The groups, along with Quebec’s opposition parties, claimed the Liberals were putting Quebeckers on trial for racism. In response to these claims, the government scrapped the inquiry in favour of a day-long consultation on discrimination in employment, scrubbing racism from the initiative’s title altogether. Afterwards, La Meute held a march through the streets of Quebec City.

The visibility and influence of these far-right groups feels new to Mulka — and it shocks her that they’ve become so prominent following the attack on the mosque. “After the shooting, I went to their [Facebook] pages. I started reading all these comments, and they were all focused toward Muslims — it’s pretty scary,” she says. “I always wonder, where are these people? Do they live here? Are there some in my son’s school?”

Given the trauma the community has experienced, it was disheartening for Mulka and Yousseff to see the government scrap its plans to study how racism impacted people like them. It’s a political game,” and sometimes Muslims pay the price for that,” Yousseff says. For a second time in the year following the shooting, the couple seriously discussed leaving the province. They considered Ottawa — it was a similar size, and family-oriented. They had friends there and best of all, it was one of the few places outside Quebec they could keep speaking French.

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Inside the Grand Mosque during afternoon prayer in November, 2017. Photo by Sadiya Ansari.

At a Friday prayer in late November 2017, the Grand Mosque is as busy as any other mosque on the holiest day of the week, as men and women trudge their way through snow from their parking spots a few blocks away. New security measures slow everyone down. The drop-off area in front of the men’s entrance has been blocked off by two concrete slabs and each member of the mosque has a key fob to scan for admission. But there are still friendly faces opening doors for those who don’t have fobs — after all, the mosque is meant to be an open space, a community centre for Muslims in the city. The women’s section upstairs is full, including a dozen or so remarkably well-behaved children — a young girl pats her brother’s forehead, encouraging him to fall asleep before the prayer starts.

At first glance, it appears the community has moved on from the tragedy. The carpets downstairs in the men’s section where the shooting happened have been scrubbed of blood stains and the splatter on the walls has been painted over. But visible traces remain, a bullet-hole in a door, as well as less visible ones, like the hum of nervous energy in a holy building that congregants used to feel safe in.

The sense of safety that attracted many Muslims like Mulka and Yousseff to settle in Quebec City was shattered last January. And the year that followed has put them even more on edge. From the brazen slurs on the radio, to the spike in hate crimes to the lack of recognition that this was a terrorist act — it hasn’t been easy to move on. Nearly every day, the congregants encounter traces of the ideology that motivated the violent attacker who killed their friends, husbands and fathers.

As for Mulka and Yousseff, they’ve decided to stay for now. The stability Quebec has provided for their daughter outweighs both daily reminders that they aren’t welcome and the threat of another attack. Mulka knows the majority of Quebeckers don’t hold extreme views, but she continues to watch the rise of the far-right in her province. “If there is one guy from La Meute is a little more crazy, a little more extremist, what can he do?” she asks, “What else can happen?”