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The Globe and Mail

Given Quebec’s past, how do we allay the fears of Muslims?

Shachi Kurl is executive director of the Angus Reid Institute

In the early hours of Monday morning, as people across Quebec and the rest of the country absorbed the shock, horror and tragedy of the murders of Muslims praying at a Sainte-Foy mosque, Premier Philippe Couillard found a way to summon words to bring his province together.

"We're with you," he told Quebec Muslims. "You are home, you are welcome in your home. We're all Québécois."

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Indeed, in the days since Canada was stunned by this attack, political, community and religious leaders have moved quickly to present a strong, united and unequivocal front in the face of this heinous, discriminatory act. They have been supported by thousands of Quebeckers who have turned out to vigils and community gatherings.

Such messages of support and inclusion aimed at telling themselves, Canadians, and the world that "this is not who we are" are right, sincere and necessary. In the longer term, though, truly coming together may require individuals to go further in their thinking and actions than many have been willing to go in the past by confronting a troubling but unavoidable reality. While it is reassuring to see outright condemnation of this hatred, feelings of exclusion, discrimination and suspicion toward minority groups, including Muslims, are undeniable parts of who many Quebeckers have been in the not-so-distant past.

We're not so far removed from 2013, when Pauline Marois' PQ government introduced Bill 60, the so-called "Charter of Values." The legislation, ostensibly aimed at dealing with "reasonable accommodation" in Quebec, would have, among other things, imposed limitations on religious symbols and clothing worn by provincial employees, such as hijabs, turbans and kippahs.

The bill was condemned as racist, inflammatory, and divisive. But in the late summer of that year, many Quebeckers themselves expressed an appetite for at least some of the provisions of Bill 60. At the time, nearly two-thirds of the respondents we polled in that province said they felt the province was doing "too much" to accommodate differences in culture and religion. By contrast, only 17 per cent in the rest of Canada felt Quebeckers were going excessively out of their way.

In the same survey, two-thirds (65 per cent) in Quebec also felt laws and norms shouldn't be modified to accommodate minorities. In the rest of Canada, agreement with this view was less than half (48 per cent). Nearly four-in-five (77 per cent) told us the values of Quebec society were at risk because of reasonable accommodation, and a commanding majority in that province – 69 per cent – reported an unfavourable view of Islam as a religion. It was 54 per cent outside Quebec.

Arguably, the election of the Quebec Liberals in 2014 may have reflected a shift in these opinions and an ultimate rejection of Bill 60. But in polling later that year, Quebeckers were also least likely among all Canadians to say they saw the Muslim community as a partner in the fight against homegrown terrorism, and most likely to say Muslim leaders were not speaking out against it enough. Polled again last summer, Quebeckers were among the most likely in this country to say minorities should be doing more to fit in better with mainstream society.

It must be underscored: There can be no comparison between public opinion that reveals skepticism, phobia or even hostility toward minorities, and the violent, criminal drive to commit mass murder. No province or territory is immune to such venom. Nor should Quebeckers be singled out for their opinions. Indeed, anti-Islamic, anti-minority feelings exist – and persist – in all parts of Canada.

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This week, people in Quebec and across the country will mourn the victims of the shootings, in vigils and in prayer. These are fitting memorials that will show Canada at its best, coming together to mourn those who died while practising their Charter rights to assemble and observe their religion.

Once the funerals are over, however, and the supportive words have dissipated into the inevitable atmosphere of "life going on," a tight-knit, admittedly frightened minority community will be left without the sense of security and safety so many of us take for granted. And it will be left with the knowledge that in the past, many of their neighbours may have felt less-than-easy, less-than-friendly toward them because of who they are and how they pray. Can Quebeckers – and indeed all Canadians – allay these fears? It's the going forward that matters most.

Video: Quebec City mosque allows media inside to view aftermath of shooting
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