The Quebec city of Sherbrooke prides itself on its good relations with and welcoming attitude toward immigrants, but acts of vandalism against a halal butcher and a mosque has stoked concerns both in the Muslim community and at city hall.
Abdelbari Souibgui had his shop vandalized three times since August, including twice in the past six weeks; his storefront’s plate glass was pierced by bullet-sized holes and signs reading “Non à l’Islam” (No to Islam) were left outside, along with numerous small paper crosses.
About a 10-minute walk away, the local Muslim cultural centre and mosque also had anti-Islam signs left outside on its property.
“It was a shock,” Bernard Sévigny, the mayor of the Eastern Townships city of 160,000, said on Friday. “People in Sherbrooke are very accepting and open to immigrant communities. This has tarnished that. It’s violence against a community.”
Last week, police arrested 52-year-old Guy Cardinal of Sherbrooke, who faces a hate-related charge of mischief related to religious property. Police believe the incidents at the mosque and butcher shop are linked.
Police seized a number of objects at Mr. Cardinal’s home, including anti-Muslim material and posters reading “Yes to the Charter.” Police believe the holes in the store window were made with a lead projectile attached to a fishing line.
To some members of the local Muslim community, including Mr. Souibgui, the incidents underscore a growing sense of vulnerability since the start of the debate on the Quebec charter of secular values, which has focused attention on head scarves and Muslim immigration by proposing a ban on religious symbols for public servants.
Mr. Souibgui, who arrived with his young family from Tunisia four years ago and moved to Sherbrooke to study for his PhD, says he is installing a video surveillance camera outside his store, the Tiba Halal Butcher and Grocery.
“To me, what happened is one of the consequences of the charter debate. We never saw acts like this before,” he said. “Before I came here, I saw Canada as a welcoming country. This is serious.”
Reports of harassment and insults against Muslims have multiplied in recent months. An informal online survey of Muslim women in the province in December found that of 338 respondents, 300 said they had suffered verbal abuse since the charter controversy began.
Sherbrooke has worked hard to open its doors to immigration and integrate newcomers, with a number of committees and cultural festivals. In the wake of the vandalism, city hall revived a multipartner “vigilance committee” for immigrants that had been dormant for over two years. “Maybe we let our guard down,” Mr. Sévigny said.
He said he considered the attacks as isolated, and said he was reluctant to establish a connection to the charter. (Local Parti Québécois MNA Serge Cardin also condemned the attacks and voiced concern they would cast a shadow over discussions of his government’s charter legislation, Bill 60).
“There are Islamophobes who might take advantage of a debate like that to carry out acts or intimidate members of the Muslim community,” Mr. Sévigny said. “These are disgraceful acts.”
Police say Mr. Cardinal is part of a hardline Quebec nationalist group called Les Insoumis, but that he acted alone. He is due back in court April 14.