By Graeme Hamilton
February 18, 2015
Up until last week, everything seemed to be proceeding smoothly for the Muslim Cultural Centre slated to open in a Shawinigan, Que. industrial park. The deadline for requesting a referendum on the necessary zoning change had passed without a single opponent coming forward, and city council was set to approve the change. The days of travelling the half-hour to Trois-Rivières for prayers were about to end for Shawinigan’s 20 Muslim families.
Then council abruptly changed course. The local newspaper Le Nouvelliste reported that there were cries of “Yes!” from members of the public when the council rejected the zoning change Feb. 10. Proponents of the mosque project who expressed their disappointment at the meeting were greeted with insults, and Mayor Michel Angers had to ask people to leave if they could not remain civil, the newspaper reported.
There was no evidence the planned centre had any link to extremists. Mr. Angers later acknowledged that the refusal to allow the zoning change was a reaction to a flood of last-minute complaints — from within Shawinigan and beyond — expressing “irrational fears” about Islamic extremism.
Rather than calming those fears, some Quebec politicians, like the city councillors in Shawinigan, are playing to them. In Quebec City Wednesday, legislators spent most of the afternoon debating a proposal from the opposition Coalition Avenir Québec to modify Quebec’s charter of rights to prohibit “repeated preaching” that runs counter to “Quebec values.” (The vote on the motion was postponed until Thursday, but both the governing Liberals and official opposition Parti Québécois said they would vote against it.)
François Legault, the leader of the Coalition Avenir Québec who once claimed he was re-entering politics to restore the province’s fiscal health, has recently switched focus, seeking to outflank the PQ as a champion of Quebec identity. In the wake of last October’s terror attacks in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu and Ottawa and the January attacks in Paris, both opposition parties are trying to portray Premier Philippe Couillard as soft on extremism.
On Tuesday, Mr. Legault sympathized with Shawinigan’s council and suggested that any new mosque project in Quebec should be greeted with suspicion. “Who can blame a mayor, confronted with the fears of his citizens,” Mr. Legault asked. He said before any mosques are authorized, the government should carry out an investigation to determine what will be preached there.
“If there are groups who want to repeatedly preach the denial of the Quebec values that are in the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, that should be prohibited,” he told reporters. He cited gender equality and protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation as values under threat.
Mr. Couillard has criticized Mr. Legault’s proposal to clamp down on speech that runs counter to Quebec values. In the National Assembly Wednesday, Mr. Couillard said Mr. Legault’s plan would affect not just mosques but churches and synagogues. “There exists in Quebec a church that does not allow women to be celebrants,” he said. “There exists in Quebec another church that says women and men must be separated in religious buildings.” He said the CAQ “really likes to talk about Muslims, but religion is a much more complex phenomenon than that.”
But Mr. Couillard has stopped short of condemning Shawinigan’s actions. He simply expressed the hope that a dialogue between municipal officials and Muslim leaders will lead to a solution. Philippe Bégin Garti, a Shawinigan lawyer involved in the mosque project, declined comment Wednesday, saying his group is in talks with the city and seeking “an amicable solution.”
Mr. Legault accused the Premier of giving priority to free speech over other values and said the government’s inaction was sowing fear in the population.
If there is a segment of the population with reason to fear, it is the Muslims who are being told the mere act of worshipping is cause for suspicion. Instead of denouncing the insults thrown at Shawinigan Muslims last week, Mr. Legault sought to score political points by feeding the prejudice.
Shawinigan is a short drive from little Hérouxville. That is where the 2007 adoption of a “code of life” purporting to tell newcomers what’s what helped trigger a full-blown crisis in Quebec, as people objected to the “accommodation” of religious minorities. Then as now, strong political leadership was sorely lacking.
Graeme Hamilton a graduate of the University of Western Ontario and Columbia University, Graeme has been with the National Post since 1998. He is the paper's Quebec correspondent, based in Montreal, where he began his newspaper career with The Gazette.