SAINT-APOLLINAIRE, Que. — After six Muslim men were shot dead inside a Quebec City mosque last January, relations between Muslims and the rest of the community were excellent, said Mohamed Kesri — and then the cemetery issue came up.
Plans are underway to open the first Quebec City-area cemetery owned and operated by Muslims, but a handful of people oppose the project and triggered a referendum, which takes place Sunday.
“There are Catholic cemeteries, Protestant cemeteries, Jewish cemeteries — we aren’t inventing anything here,” said Kesri, the man mandated by the Quebec City mosque to lead the project. ”We want to be like everybody else.”
The proposed burial site is located in Saint-Apollinaire, a town of 6,000 about 35 kilometres southwest of Quebec City.
Due to a Quebec law permitting referendums on zoning matters, 49 people who live and work around the proposed site will decide whether the thousands of Muslims in the Quebec City area get their own cemetery.
“If I had asked for an ordinary cemetery, it probably wouldn’t have bothered people,” said Saint-Apollinaire Mayor Bernard Ouellet. “I think the fear has started because of the word, ‘Muslim.’”
If Sunday’s referendum fails, Ouellet said, “I don’t have a Plan B. On our level, we would have done the maximum effort.”
Kesri isn’t nearly as resigned.
Quebec adopted a law in June allowing municipalities to forgo referendums on land projects in order to give more power to local authorities.
Kesri said Quebec City’s Muslim community will pressure politicians to have the new legislation applied — if need be.
“It’s clear to us we won’t abandon the project,” said Kesri. “They have the power to not do a referendum, so if we can have the law applied, then why not do it?”
Quebec City’s Muslims have been looking for a cemetery for two decades, but made a renewed push after they completed the payment for the city’s main mosque, in 2011, Kesri said.
It was there last January that a gunman shot dead six men in the main prayer hall and injured 19 others. The bodies were sent overseas and to Montreal for burial.
“Since the events of Jan. 29, there was an extraordinary sense of community,” Kesri said.
“There were meetings after meetings. We were all incredibly surprised. We thought it would continue. And then this small minority risks destroying a project that belongs to thousands of Muslims.”
The land for the proposed cemetery is behind a non-denominational funeral parlour called Harmonia, located along Saint-Apollinaire’s industrial park.
Few people live around the area, which explains why only 49 people get to vote Sunday.
Sylvain Roy, Harmonia’s director, said his company offered to sell part of the land to Quebec City’s mosque for $215,000.
The plan is to have two cemeteries — one non-sectarian and another Muslim — side by side, he said.
“We had about 10-12 people come see us after we made the announcement,” Roy said. “There is a small but ferocious opposition to this project.”
The project has also highlighted divisions within Quebec’s Muslim community, with some people preferring multiconfessional cemeteries as opposed to Muslim ones.
Hadjira Belkacem, with Quebec’s Muslim burial association, said she asked the mosque’s administrators to work together on opening a Muslim section in an existing cemetery, but she was rebuffed.
So her group and the Magnus Poirier funeral company opened a Muslim section in a Christian cemetery in Quebec City, which was inaugurated July 9.
There are five other burial areas for Muslims in the province, all located in the Montreal area.
Belkacem’s group helped open all three Muslim sections in cemeteries in and around Montreal.
Additionally, there are two full-fledged Muslim cemeteries side by side in Laval, just north of Montreal, each run by a mosque.
Kesri said his community wasn’t interested in Belkacem’s plan for a Muslim section in an existing cemetery.
“We told (her) the population here wanted their own land,” he said. “When you have land that you own, families have a plot for eternity.”
One of those opposed to the project is Julien Joannette, 73, who won’t be voting Sunday because he lives outside the referendum zone.
He says he supports the multiconfessional project Belkacem helped introduce in Quebec City, but doesn’t agree with a Muslim-specific cemetery.
“If (the Muslim community) didn’t cause so many conflicts, they would have our support,” he said. “They lost our support because they wanted to stir things up too much. They wanted their way. We want peace.”
Simon Yannick Plourde, 40, lives in a house surrounded by farmland on the outskirts of Saint-Apollinaire. He will be voting on Sunday and said he supports the project.
“I think about the people who have been here for decades and have to be buried outside the country — I wouldn’t want that for myself,” Plourde said.
“There are countries where I wouldn’t be able to be buried, even if I lived there. Just because that happens in other countries doesn’t mean it should happen here.”