Each Dec. 6, Quebec commemorates the 14 female engineering students killed in 1989 by a troubled young man with a gun. The tragedy – known as the École Polytechnique Massacre – remains ingrained in the collective consciousness as both a cowardly act of misogyny and a wake-up call.
From now on, sadly, another date on the calendar can never pass without Quebeckers remembering the innocent victims of a hateful shooting, this time gunned down in their place of worship simply because a troubled young man could not find a non-cowardly outlet for his frustrations.
The attack on a mosque in a sleepy and snowbound Quebec City suburb has profoundly shaken the whole country. But its repercussions will be felt in Quebec to a degree few Canadians outside the province can fathom. The shooting could have happened anywhere. But because it happened in Quebec, its aftermath will be as distinct as the society in which it occurred.
No part of Canada has struggled to come to terms with the challenges raised by immigration and religious diversity as emotionally, and sometimes messily, as Quebec. The province is united in its grief for the victims of the carnage at the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec. The outpourings of sympathy for, and solidarity with, the province's Muslim community are authentic. But given the typically heated nature of Quebec's identity debates, it will take an extra effort to ensure that this spirit of generosity is maintained when the shock wears off.
"The challenge will be to carry it forward after," said Premier Philippe Couillard. "Words spoken, words written as well, are not trivial. It's up to us to choose them."
It would be irresponsible to lay blame for the shooting on anyone but its perpetrator. And until the police do their work, we cannot really know why he consciously chose to lash out at folks exercising a fundamental right. Still, the shooting occurred amid Quebec's ongoing debate over religious accommodation and two days after U.S. President Donald Trump slapped a 90-day ban on visitors from seven majority-Muslim countries. Is that a coincidence?
Quebec receives proportionally more Muslim immigrants than the rest of Canada, mainly from former French colonies in North Africa. Indeed, Quebec accepted twice as many immigrants from Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt between 2011 and 2015 as from China, or about 46,000. Another 14,000 came from Iran. The overwhelming majority have settled in Montreal, but the debate over the role of Islam in Quebec society has seized the entire province.
Quebeckers like to think of themselves as a secular people, but their attachment to cultural Catholicism runs deep. It, along with language, is at the core of French-speaking Quebeckers' identity. The former Parti Québécois' proposed Charter of Quebec Values, though presented as an affirmation of secular values, was a response (the wrong one) to the growing insecurity of the majority in the face of rising Muslim immigration. It did incalculable harm, leading to a hardening of positions.
Did it also contribute to the radicalization of some young Quebec Muslims, several of whom went to Syria (or tried to) to join the Islamic State? What's clear is that their radicalization did not occur in a vacuum and all Quebec Muslims experienced the Charter debate viscerally.
The Charter debate "crystallized the positions of the public and the media regarding Islam and the place of Muslims in Quebec. Some popular judgments were interpreted by a portion of young Quebec Muslims as an attack against Islam, the cultural constitutive basis of their identity," Quebec's anti-radicalization body concluded in a report last year.
It will take every effort on the part of politicians and leaders in the Muslim community to ensure that the Quebec City shooting does not allow a similar slide – or dérapage – into an us-versus-them argument. Mr. Couillard went to great lengths to reassure Muslims that they are "at home" in Quebec. But his government has also proposed needless legislation that bans those dispensing or receiving government services from covering their faces. He should pull the bill.
While Quebec's anti-radicalization efforts have focused on young Muslims, young agitators on the extreme right have become more active and brazen in propagating their anti-immigration views. They have held several rallies in Quebec City, their apparent base, in recent months. How many impressionable young Quebeckers have internalized this hate circulating on the Internet?
One thing is for sure. After Sunday night, the debate over immigration, religion and identity can never be the same in Quebec. If any good can possibly come of hate, it is the empathy it brings out for those on its receiving end. Like Polytechnique, Quebeckers can never forget this wake-up call.