‘We’re here to stay’: Quebecers who fought to get Muslim cemeteries built say they’re a sign of progress

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Standing in front of the gates of the Quebec City Muslim Cemetery, Boufeldja Benabdallah reflects on the more than two decades he spent trying to establish a local burial ground for his community.

“It was 22 years of fighting, research and meetings,” he said. “People were burying their loved ones at the Muslim cemetery in Montreal.” 

Benabdallah, who is the cemetery director and co-founder of the Quebec City Islamic Cultural Centre, said it was extremely difficult to find land that was available, affordable and properly zoned.

Reda Bouchelaghem of the Association Culturelle Islamique de l’Estrie (ACIE) in Quebec’s Eastern Townships said his group faced similar challenges.

Both men say it took a tragedy that shocked the country for their cemeteries to see the light of day. 

Quebec City mosque attack

It has been five years since the deadly attack on the Quebec City mosque. On Jan. 29, 2017, six members of Benabdallah’s congregation were killed, and five others were critically injured when a gunman entered the city’s Islamic Cultural Centre during evening prayers. One of the injured is still in a wheelchair. Alexandre Bissonnette is serving two concurrent life sentences for the killings.

Following the shootings, the bodies of five of the six Muslim men killed were sent to their countries of origin. The sixth was buried in Laval, Que., which at the time had the only two Muslim cemeteries in Quebec.  

According to Islamic tradition, the body of a deceased Muslim is to be washed, shrouded and a communal prayer performed before it is interred in the shortest possible time after death — something that’s been historically difficult for Muslims in Canada. 

A few months after the attack, Benabdallah found a potential cemetery site in Saint-Apollinaire, a town of 6,000 about 45 kilometres south of Quebec City. The mayor of Saint-Apollinaire approved an Islamic cemetery, but a group of residents protested the project. They pushed the issue to a municipal referendum, where it was voted down.

Former mayor Régis Labeaume steps in

Benabdallah instead got the ear of Quebec City’s then-mayor Régis Labeaume, who said he was determined to work with the city’s Muslim community in an effort to heal and move forward after the 2017 attack.

In the days after the shooting rampage at the mosque, Labeaume promised to find a suitable site for a Muslim cemetery.

“We are working with them to see what they need. We will help them,” he said at the time.

Benabdallah, left, signed a land purchase agreement with former Quebec City mayor Régis Labeaume, right, in 2019 that allowed the cemetery to be built in the Sainte-Foy neighbourhood where the 2017 shooting at a mosque claimed the lives of six people. (Nicole Germain/Radio-Canada)

It was Labeaume who later found a parcel of land on Frank-Carrel Street in the same Sainte-Foy neighbourhood as the Quebec City mosque.

“He knew the difficulties we were having, and all of a sudden, he found a site that belonged to the city and was already zoned for a cemetery,” said Benabdallah.

After raising more than $250,000 in donations, the Quebec City Islamic Cultural Centre signed a purchase agreement with the city in 2019. The cemetery opened in June 2020, and since then, 16 Muslims have been buried there.

Labeaume’s gesture “really touched the community,” Benabdallah said.

Mohamed Behache, who came to Quebec from Algeria in the 1960s, is one of 16 people laid to rest at the Quebec City Muslim cemetery. (Hadi Hassin/Radio-Canada)

Muslim cemetery in Sherbrooke

In the Eastern Townships, Bouchelaghem shares a similar story. The Sherbrooke man who first came to the region 20 years ago started looking for a burial ground for Muslims in 2015. 

“Back then, it felt like we were running up against a wall, but things eventually started to open up for us,” he said, “specifically after the attack in Quebec City.”

In 2018, the City of Sherbrooke agreed to sell the Islamic cultural association a small site in the north end of the city, near Victoria Park. Following a fundraising campaign and approval from the province, the cemetery opened last November.

“Now Muslims who live here in Sherbrooke don’t have to visit Montreal to lay flowers on a grave,” said Bouchelaghem. “It’s an enormous gain … spiritually and emotionally.”

CBC reached out to city officials in Quebec City and Sherbrooke to ask about the impact the 2017 mosque attack had on their relationships with the Muslim community but did not hear back.

Reda Bouchelaghem, president of the Eastern Townships Islamic Cultural Association, helped get a Muslim cemetery built in Sherbrooke. He and his family have lived in the region for more than 20 years. (Submitted by Reda Bouchelaghem)

Putting down roots

Bouchelaghem has watched Sherbrooke’s Muslim community grow over the past two decades, as more international students arrived to study at Bishop’s University and waves of Syrian refugees and other immigrants settled in the region.

He says language challenges for Muslim immigrants who don’t speak French and Quebec’s Bill 21 — which bans some civil servants from wearing religious symbols at work — have driven some Muslims out of the province, but many in the community consider it home.

“We’re here to stay,” he said. “The majority of the community, we’re well established here. We have work, our children go to school here, and we’re working to advance our society.”

Sombre anniversary

For Benabdallah, the establishment of the Quebec City cemetery is a sign of progress.

“When someone decides they want to be buried here and puts it in their will, it’s a sign of integration,” he said. “It’s a sign to the family, to the children [that] this is somewhere we can live.”

As he pondered the fifth anniversary of the mosque attack, Benabdallah said he thinks of the lives that were lost, the people who were hurt — and the fact he and his friends were targeted because of their religion.

“We have that obligation to commemorate and remember those moments, to remember our brothers and those who were injured,” he said.

But while attitudes toward Muslims have improved, he said, the broader fight against discrimination must continue.

“The cries of hate haven’t disappeared. Islamophobia persists … but these things, we can change,” he said.

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