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'We do not intend to give up' dream to have a cemetery: Quebec Muslims

The Gazette logo The Gazette 3 days ago Andy Riga, Montreal Gazette
020317-Quebec_Mosque_Shooting_20170203-0204_city_qc_funeral-W.jpg: 'We do not intend to give up' dream to have a cemetery: Quebec Muslims © Paul Chiasson 'We do not intend to give up' dream to have a cemetery: Quebec Muslims

Bitter after narrowly losing a referendum, Quebec City’s biggest mosque says it has not abandoned the dream of creating a Muslim cemetery.

“We do not intend to give up,” the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec said in a statement posted on its Facebook page Monday, a day after residents of St-Apollinaire rejected, by a vote of 19 to 16, a plan to create what would have been the region’s first Muslim-owned cemetery.

Muslims “bitterly note” that it took just 19 votes in a zoning-change referendum to reject a cemetery project the community has been working on for 20 years, the statement said.

The centre runs Quebec City’s biggest mosque, where a gunman killed six Muslim men on Jan. 29. 

Fear, ignorance and Islamophobia fueled the No side in St-Apollinaire, a town of 5,600 located 45 kilometres southwest of Quebec City, the centre said. “The 19 against came out to refuse to write a beautiful page in the history of happy coexistence in Quebec and Canada,” the statement said.

It’s unclear if the community intends to continue to try to create a cemetery in St-Apollinaire or if it will try elsewhere. Officials at the centre did not return calls on Monday.

The mayor of St-Apollinaire says he has no intention of reopening the debate any time soon.

“For the moment, we have done our bit and we’re going to take a break, I hope for a long time, from the issue,” Mayor Bernard Ouellet told the Montreal Gazette on Monday.

“I don’t want to put the population through something like this again soon.”

The issue of opening a Muslim cemetery on land now owned by a cremation company divided the town

Residents signed a register compelling St-Apollinaire to hold a referendum in which 49 people in an area around the cemetery were allowed to vote.

Civil-rights lawyer Julius Grey said the Muslim community could contest the referendum.

“Referendums are not binding when it comes to fundamental rights,” Grey said, noting the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that “it doesn’t matter what the majority thinks of our freedom of expression and religion.”

He said the town could either ignore the referendum results, leaving the door open to opponents taking the issue to court, or the Muslim community could go to the Human Rights Commission or Superior Court to contest the results.

“I believe that in either scenario, our courts would say that a majority cannot decide a question like that,” Grey said.

“If it is in fact the belief of some Muslims that they need a Muslim cemetery, then they have to be permitted to have it, and it doesn’t matter what the majority opinion is.”

He said that “in a liberal democracy, as opposed to some sort of populist democracy, it’s not majority opinion that decides everything. Majority opinion decides those things that have to be taken in common — there can only be one budget, one Criminal Code, one bankruptcy law and so on. And that’s done through our legislatures.

“But on matters of fundamental rights, the opinion of the majority is not the be all and end all of the issue, it’s not the decisive factor.”

Mayor Ouellet, who said “fear and disinformation” led to the rejection, wanted a town-wide referendum but Quebec law would not allow that. If all residents had been eligible, “it would have been more likely that the Yes side would have won,” he said.

In June, Quebec’s National Assembly passed Bill 122, which will allow municipalities to avoid referendums for zoning changes.

But cities and towns that want to abolish the referendum process must first adopt an “information and consultation” policies, and the provincial government has yet to set out guidelines for those policies.

Though Muslims have lived in Quebec City for generations, there is no Islamic-owned cemetery in the area. Instead, the community buries its dead in Montreal or sends bodies back to birth countries.

This month, the Lépine Cloudier Athos funeral home opened a Muslim section of its cemetery in Saint-Augustin-de-Desmaures, near Quebec City. It has set aside 500 lots for Muslims.

But that project was not supported by the Centre culturel islamique de Québec, which wants a cemetery that is owned by the Muslim community.

Though the community has been negotiating to buy the land since the fall, the issue came to a head after a mosque shooting. Five of the six victims were buried overseas.

The centre wants to buy 60,000 square feet of land adjacent to a non-denominational funeral-services company, for $215,000.

That company, Harmonia, would operate the cemetery. It has permission to bury cremated remains on the land but a zoning change would be required to allow corpses to be buried.

Quebec City Mayor Regis Labeaume said he was saddened by the vote result and finds it “incredible” that a small group could block the project.

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