“Every society has to live with its demons,” said Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard as he faced reporters at the province’s National Assembly on Tuesday — less than 48 hours after six men were shot dead inside a local mosque.
“Our society is not perfect. No society is.”
His words were part of a broader effort this week to push back against those who would suggest that Quebec suffers from a particularly virulent case of xenophobia — one that has been allowed to fester and ultimately resulted in Sunday night’s massacre.
The premier has argued the outpouring of support from Quebecers and large vigils organized following the tragedy attest to the tolerance and acceptance in his province. He has also admitted that hatred of Muslims exists.
Barbara Perry, a professor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology who tracks right-wing extremist groups, agrees with Couillard that no society is perfect.
But while Islamophobia and xenophobia are hardly unique to Quebec, she said, it’s also fair to suggest that they have found particularly fertile ground in the province.
“Much of the news that we get, and the research that we did around right-wing extremism, seemed to find that Quebec was quite a hotbed,” Perry said.
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A longstanding commitment to preserving Quebec’s Francophone culture and a strongly-held belief in the separation of church and state (and how much religious beliefs should be accommodated) could both play a role, she added.
Quebecers are then subject to the same perceptions, stereotypes and media coverage that affects the rest of Canadians.
The “distinct blend of xenophobia” that has arisen in Quebec is quite similar to that seen in France, said Perry, “and it really does target, much more directly I think, Islam.”
“I think there really are layers and layers, and maybe additional layers relative to Quebec.”
Samer Majzoub, the president of the Canadian Muslim Forum, said Islamophobia is perhaps “more manifested” and “demonstrated” in Quebec than in other regions, but it’s a problem across Canada.
“People are talking about it more (in Quebec),” he explained, choosing his words carefully.
Meanwhile, many Muslim groups in Quebec say they have watched tensions increase for years. Some have argued that endless political debates surrounding identity and religious accommodation, and “trash” talk radio, have contributed to a culture of intolerance.
Back in 2010, the provincial Liberals proposed banning face veils (including the niqab or burqa) among those giving and receiving government services. That never became law, but the debate was far from over.
Three years later, the Parti Quebecois introduced its so-called Charter of Values, which argued for a complete ban of any overt religious symbol – including a Muslim veil or scarf – on any public sector employee.
“The rationale (former premier Pauline Marois) provided for the Charter of Values was to minimize the role or the visibility of religion, but of course the focus was really on one religion,” said Perry.
Quebec’s politicians have not been pulling their proposals out of thin air. While Quebecers soundly rejected the PQ’s charter, public support for the Liberal bill in 2010 stood at 95 per cent.
Similar legislation is now winding its way through the Assembly.
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The degree to which the province’s residents remained wary of Muslim veiling was also laid bare during the federal election campaign in late 2015. When NDP leader Tom Mulcair came out against a Conservative proposal to ban the niqab at citizenship ceremonies, the party’s numbers in Quebec tanked.
Beyond this, general public perception of Islam and its adherents remains far from rosy.
A poll conducted late last year by Forum Research showed that nearly half of Quebecers (48 per cent) retain an unfavourable view of the religion, compared to between 18 and 28 per cent in all other regions of Canada.
Patrols and Pegida
Meanwhile, a number of far-right groups continue to find a home in Quebec.
A first Canadian chapter of the overtly anti-Islamic group Pegida popped up there back in 2015, and was immediately greeted by public backlash.
La Meute (The Wolf Pack), a Quebec-based group that aims to counter what it perceives to be the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism in the province, fared much better. It counted 43,000 members on its private Facebook page as of December and continues to grow, rapidly becoming the most visible face of the far-right in the region.
Similar groups like Justiciers du peuple have also gained a foothold.
Others have taken their beliefs out of cyberspace and into the real world. The neo-fascist Atalante Québec recruits via posters plastered around Quebec City. The Soldiers of Odin, a collective founded in Finland, ‘patrols’ the streets to prevent what it calls immigrant crime.
According to a recent CBC report, the group has attracted 400 members in Quebec (plus 3,100 elsewhere in Canada) and maintains an active, visible presence in Quebec City.
Almost all of these groups have now publicly condemned the violent attack on the mosque, but Perry said officials should be wary of extremists coming out of the woodwork in the wake of the shooting.
“We have seen incidents before … where there is an emboldening, or (an attack) inspires similar kinds of incidents. So that’s a very strong possibility,” she cautioned.
“I don’t think that the rest of the provinces, in spite of the very different politics and very different context, should rest in complacency. I think we need to be vigilant elsewhere.”