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Quebec Premier François Legault’s declaration that Islamophobia does not exist in the province has landed his government in its first major controversy on a most sensitive topic – and at a very bad time.

Just days after commemorating the massacre at a Quebec City mosque and days before his government introduces a law banning religious dress among people in “positions of authority” that will mostly affect Muslim female schoolteachers, Mr. Legault’s declaration was condemned by a broad swath of religious groups, political leaders and commentators.

Mr. Legault softened his stance somewhat Friday, issuing a statement saying he meant “there is no trend, no culture” of Islamophobia in Quebec. “Quebec is not Islamophobic or racist.”

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However, the damage was done for Quebec City Muslim leaders who stood with Mr. Legault on Jan. 29 while the Premier respectfully commemorated the deaths of six men at their mosque two years earlier.

“It was a hammer blow, your words were so far from what I heard you pronounce on the anniversary,” Boufeldja Benabdallah, president and co-founder of the Centre culturel islamique de Québec, wrote in a letter to Mr. Legault.

The National Council of Canadian Muslims called Mr. Legault’s comments “an absolute insult to the families of the victims and to Muslim communities in Quebec and across Canada who continue to grieve this tragedy."

The place of Islam in Quebec dominated the news in the province in the past week. The legislature resumes sitting Tuesday and all four parties held lengthy caucus meetings in advance to debate how far the upcoming law limiting religious dress should go. (The Liberals finally decided to maintain their longstanding opposition to a ban. The Parti Québécois says a ban should go further than planned to include daycare providers, but should allow current employees to keep their jobs and religious symbols. The Coalition Avenir Québec debated a grandfather clause inconclusively.)

The government also revealed the secular dress code will cover teachers in public schools, but not subsidized private ones.

Early in the week, one of Mr. Legault’s rookie CAQ ministers mused that she might be open to a proposal to have a day against Islamophobia in the province. Mr. Legault quickly shut the door. “We don’t have Islamophobia in Quebec so I don’t see why we would have a day dedicated to it,” Mr. Legault said in a news conference that he clarified one day later.

Quebec had 117 hate crimes against Muslims in 2017 compared with 41 the previous year, according to Statistics Canada.

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Mr. Benabdallah would prefer a more inclusive day against all forms of discrimination instead of one limited to Islamophobia. But he said Mr. Legault’s absolute dismissiveness was harmful and sets a dangerous tone as the province enters another contentious debate about religion.

“I fear these words feed the Islamophobes who love to falsely accuse us of saying all Quebeckers are Islamophobes,” he said. “I also fear this is a preamble to harsh declarations on religious symbols that essentially target Muslim women.

“I fear [the Premier] has given magisterial approval to the fringe that feeds on Islamophobia.“

As Mr. Legault issued his clarification Friday, a man was appearing in court near Montreal to face hate-crime charges for expressing hatred for Muslims and for having defended the Quebec City mosque shooter.

In Gatineau, Que., the mayor condemned a city councillor for saying Islamophobia doesn’t exist and for going further: “Those people do not integrate,” Coun. Nathalie Lemieux told Le Droit newspaper. “Those people do a lot of harm, with their trucks and all those things,” she added, in apparent reference to Islamist truck attacks in Europe.

Mr. Legault has not set a specific timeline for the introduction of his secular dress code but has said it will be one of his government’s first pieces of legislation.

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Mr. Legault tweeted Friday night that he had reached out to Mr. Benabdallah and promised to “fight against racism, hatred and intolerance.”

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