In the aftermath of the bloody mosque shooting that took the lives of six Muslim men in Quebec City this year, Mohamed Kesri said he was struck by the outpouring of support and solidarity from fellow Quebeckers.
"The cards, the flowers, the visits to our mosque, the hugs. It was incredible," he said. "We started to build closer relations. We felt encouraged about living side-by-side."
On Monday, Mr. Kesri said he wondered where the spirit of kinship had gone, and how to repair it. A project to create a cemetery for Quebec City Muslims had been defeated by three votes in a referendum. Mr. Kesri, who spearheaded the project on behalf of the Centre culturel islamique de Québec, said he was disheartened but adamant about pursuing the fight.
"We will not give up," he said on Monday. "It's insane. Three votes. We speak for thousands of Muslims in Quebec City."
The Muslim community in Quebec's second-largest city has been trying to find a place to bury its dead for about 20 years, and members say they will search for more years to come. Although the community would prefer to obtain a cemetery through negotiations, it will consider a court challenge or human-rights complaint if need be, Mr. Kesri said.
Legal experts say the Islamic centre would have a solid case for a Charter challenge of Sunday's referendum results. The "No" side in the vote on the project in the town of Saint-Apollinaire won 19-16 against the "Yes" side after opponents mobilized 22 people to sign a registry to force a referendum.
"It doesn't matter what the majority thinks," Montreal constitutional lawyer Julius Grey said.
"A referendum that has the effect of discrimination or the violation of freedom of religion can be ignored. The purpose of the Charter in a democracy is to protect against the majority." Mr. Grey said the town of Saint-Apollinaire could simply refuse to heed the referendum results and proceed with the cemetery. The winning "No" side could take the city to court, he said, but "I think they will lose."
Several municipalities in Quebec are facing citizen pressure to restrict mosques or Muslim community centres, Mr. Grey said. "These things are not popular, but the courts must defend the unpopular."
The Centre culturel islamique de Québec had struck a tentative deal with a funeral operator to buy a piece of land in an industrial area of Saint-Apollinaire, southwest of Quebec City. The deal gained urgency after a gunman opened fire and killed six worshipers at the Quebec City Grand Mosque in January. Alexandre Bissonnette is accused of murder in the killings.
Imam Hassan Guillet delivered the eulogy for three of the shooting victims. In it he said, "The society that could not protect them – the society that could not benefit from their generosity – still has a chance." On Monday, Mr. Guillet said he found the referendum results "sad."
"This is democracy," he said. "But it has led to an outrageous result."
Members of the Muslim community across Quebec are expressing feelings of injustice, he said.
"They feel they're the victim of rejection and discrimination," Mr. Guillet said. "They keep saying they're not being accepted, not just in life but now in death. All we're asking for is [as] a people to bury our dead in dignity."
The result has also put the referendum process under the microscope. Only voters in the zone adjoining the proposed cemetery site were eligible to vote. It is an industrial and semi-agricultural area of auto-body shops, horse farms and bungalows, separated from the Saint-Apollinaire town centre by a busy highway. The "No" side mobilized early and visited the few dozen eligible voters repeatedly.
"They were very, very active, going to see people two, three times. You could almost talk about harassment," said Jean-Serge Paradis, a retired high-school guidance counsellor who supported the cemetery. He said he was disappointed by the result. "The [Muslim] community lived through a real drama," he said of the mosque shooting. "I felt that people from here could be open and compassionate. Why should it bother anyone if people want to bury their dead?"
The results underscored the concerns of critics of municipal referendums, which are unique to Quebec. In a brief presented to a Quebec parliamentary committee this year, the Union of Quebec Municipalities called the referendum process for land-use issues "dysfunctional."
"It's important to recall that referendum approval is particular to Quebec and exists nowhere else in Canada," the group said. "Here, not only does the threat of a referendum hover constantly over municipal leaders who have the democratic legitimacy to act, but the threat of the minimal number of signatures on the registry can abort a municipal project. The conclusion is clear: Approval by referendum is dysfunctional."
Louis Beauregard, a Montreal lawyer specializing in municipal law, says that while referendums have been important for citizens with legitimate concerns who want their voices heard, the plebiscites tend to serve the "No" camp – "NIMBYs and BANANAs," he said, using the acronyms for "not in my backyard" and "build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone."
Quebec recently passed legislation allowing municipalities to opt out of the referendum process if they provide another way to consult citizens. But the changes come too late for the cemetery project in Saint-Apollinaire.