Quebec’s Muslim community weighs in on the eve of Alexandre Bissonnette’s sentencing
The first emotions Ehab Lotayef felt after Quebec City’s mosque attack in 2017 were shock and disbelief. In the two years since, there’s another sentiment he still hasn’t been able to shake.
“The fear will not go away,” Lotayef said. “This can happen again.”
Lotayef was one of the co-founders of Muslim Awareness Week, a week-long series of events commemorating the second anniversary of the mosque attack that left six men dead.
Superior Court Justice François Huot is set to hand down Friday a sentence for gunman Alexandre Bissonnette. The 29-year-old pleaded guilty in March 2018 to six counts of first-degree murder and six counts of attempted murder.
Bissonnette walked into the Quebec City Islamic Cultural Centre on Jan. 29, 2017, opening fire with a nine-millimetre pistol. In less than two minutes, he fired 48 shots, killing six men who were attending evening prayers.
The victims were brothers Ibrahima Barry, 39, and Mamadou Tanour Barry, 42, Khaled Belkacemi,60, Aboubake Thabti, 44, Abdelkrim Hassane, 41, and Azzedine Soufiane, 57.
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Bissonnette could be looking at the longest sentence in Canadian history. In 2011, Ottawa changed the rules and gave judges the discretion to hand down consecutive sentences. Prior to the change, someone found guilty of first-degree murder faced a mandatory life term, but was eligible to apply for parole after 25 years.
Under the new rules, Bissonnette could be sentenced to a life term with no chance of parole for 150 years.
In court, Huot has made it clear he is leaning in that direction and that consecutive sentences are “probable.”
Bissonnette had a history of mental health issues and a fascination with mass murders. He told psychologists mass shooters such as Dylann Roof and the Columbine killers were his “idols.”
He also told investigators he was upset with the Canadian government’s plan to accept refugees and that his attack was meant to save his friends and family from Islamist terrorism.
Lotayef says he organized Muslim Awareness Week to help the wider population get beyond stereotypes and better understand Muslims living in Quebec.
“I have been here for 30 years,” Lotayef said. “I don’t feel like a stranger.”
“Most of the community doesn’t, but we’re still viewed as strangers — we’re still viewed as newcomers.”
In the days and weeks after the attack, there were numerous rallies and memorials to the victims. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in Quebec City the day after the attack for a vigil outside the mosque.
However, in the two years since the attack, some in the Muslim community say the outpouring of support has dried up.
Kenza Tarek, a Muslim student studying at Laval University, said there was a wave of compassion following the shooting.
“But then it disappeared rapidly afterwards,” Tarek said. “It didn’t get better.”
For Megda Belkacemi, Friday is a day she has been awaiting eagerly. Her father Khaled was one of the victims.
“I am looking forward to see the sentence,” she said.
Once her father’s killer has been sent to prison, Belkacemi says she will finally be able to turn the page on this chapter and start looking to the future instead.
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