The Roots of the Quebec Incident

Reuel S. Amdur July/August 2017

On January 29, 2017, a man entered a mosque in Ste-Foy, a suburb of Quebec City, and, using a CZ-858 rifle and a 9-millimeter pistol, proceeded to shoot men at prayer, killing six and wounding another five. Authorities identified and charged Alexandre Bissonnette for the horrific crime.

We need to look at the circumstances that led to such behavior. There is a striking similarity between the Ste-Foy incident and that of a massacre in Norway in 2011. Both atrocities were carried out by young males. Both targeted Muslims, in the Norwegian instance also those seen as sympathetic to Muslims. Both the assailants see themselves as Christian crusaders. Let’s look at the two killers and their sociocultural milieu.

Bissonnette, a Laval University political science student, was apparently inspired to activism by a visit to Quebec City last March by Marine Le Pen, presidential candidate for France’s National Front. She raised the alarm that Islam and Muslims are threatening Europe and the French way of life. This stance guaranteed her a substantial vote in this year’s elections.

He also admires Donald Trump, whose statements about Muslims have been very polarizing. Bissonnette has been a member of the Parti Québécois, which, during the last provincial election campaign, presented a Charter of Values, which purported to be based on the religious neutrality of the state.

The charter was, in essence, a dress code, forbidding government employees from wearing “conspicuous” religious garb or symbols or covering their faces. While the proposed charter is worded broadly and would if implemented have affected Jews and Sikhs, the real target was Muslims, focusing especially on the minuscule number of Muslim women who do in fact cover their faces. And the criterion that symbols not be “conspicuous” would mean that there would be no problem for Christians wearing small crosses, as against Jews wearing yarmulkes, Sikhs with turbans, and especially Muslims with hijabs (scarves that cover the hair). The Parti Québécois (PQ) and the Liberal Party are the two largest provincial parties in Quebec.

Bissonnette frequently participated on social media, attacking immigrants in general and Muslims in particular. He wants only “White” immigrants, to prevent Whites being marginalized.

Returning to the cultural question, of which the PQ orientation is a part, Shachi Kurl, executive director of the Angus Reid Institute, called attention to surveys done by Angus Reid that distinguish Quebec from the rest of the country. At the time of the introduction of the Charter of Values, “nearly two thirds of respondents we polled in the province said they felt the province was doing ‘too much’ to accommodate differences in culture and religion.” Elsewhere in Canada only 17 percent felt that there was too much accommodation.

During the most recent federal election campaign, then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper tried to prevent a niqab-wearing woman from taking the citizenship oath. It was a battle he lost in court. (A niqab covers head and face, showing just the eyes.) His party also proposed a snitch line on which people could report “barbaric cultural practices.” Currently a candidate to replace him as head of the Conservative Party wants to screen immigrants for “Canadian values.” There are 14 candidates for the position, but only one, Michael Chong, favors a motion by Iqra Khalid, member of Parliament for the ruling Liberals, that calls on Parliament to “condemn Islamophobia and all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination.” Since the motion would not have the force of law, Conservative arguments that it would restrict criticism of Islam and its treatment of women and would open the door for sharia law are simply false. This attitude by the Conservatives gives haters a mask of legitimacy, especially coming as it does after the massacre.

Quebec history is replete with xenophobic hysteria: suspicion of Jehovah’s Witnesses activity and priests warning parents not to allow their children to play with Protestant children are just a couple of examples. Quebec schools are no longer divided into Protestant and Catholic (in reality, schools for Catholics and schools for everyone else). In the past immigrants were often pushed into the Protestant system. Now, by contrast, newcomers with few exceptions must enroll in the French system.

A watershed event in the small town (under 2,000 people) of Hérouxville showed something of the depth of xenophobia in Quebec. In 2007 the town council adopted a code of conduct for newcomers, which included a prohibition of stoning or burning women and of genital mutilation. It does not appear that any immigrants have chosen to move there since. Other towns were prepared to endorse the code, when Premier Jean Charest took a step to defuse the situation.

Charest set up a commission to report back on what would be a reasonable accommodation of religious differences. The two-man commission included Gérard Bouchard, a PQ supporter and sociologist, and Charles Taylor, who ran for office for the social democratic New Democratic party, and who is a distinguished philosopher.

Their report favored limitations on religious garb and symbols only for figures of authority—judges, prosecuting attorneys, prison guards, and police. Now, in the shadow of the massacre, Taylor has reversed himself and rejected the limitations on these categories.

The Quiet Revolution, a throwing-off of the Catholic Church’s stranglehold on Quebec culture, is often traced to the 1960 election of a Liberal government, after the death of Premier Maurice Duplessis, a reactionary Catholic who strove to impose his worldview. Yet elements of the old persist, separating Quebec as more intolerant than elsewhere in Canada.

The recent massacre brought out a massive show of sympathy throughout Quebec, as well as elsewhere in the country: sympathy for the families and for Muslims. Premier Philippe Couillard expressed his sincere condolences at the mosque speaking in French and Arabic. (He worked as a brain surgeon in Saudi Arabia for a time.) And as far as people in the public service are concerned, he said that face covering is a nonissue. As it should be , since few if any are doing this. Yet there is a Liberal bill before the National Assembly outlawing the practice. The PQ and the Coalition Avenir Québec (another opposition party) are demanding that the bill be expanded and strengthened, even beyond the scope of Bouchard-Taylor. Spokesmen from all the parties denounced the massacre and made sincere expressions of sympathy for the Muslim community. Yet on this nonissue Liberals, PQ, and Coalition Avenir Québec join together to water the soil that sprouts the likes of Alexandre Bissonnette. To his credit, Premier Couillard is now taking a strong stand against the “reasonable accommodation” argument and is on side with Taylor. Yet the face covering bill remains before the National Assembly.

To demonstrate the gap between Quebec and the rest of Canada on toleration, consider the issue of dress for police. Until Couillard’s shift, virtually all politicos in Quebec were on side for uniformity. Yet way back in 1990 a Sikh was allowed into the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) wearing a turban. Last year the RCMP designed its own hijab for officers choosing to wear one. The Canadian Armed Forces permitted the hijab back in 1996.

Now let us turn to Anders Breivik in Norway. On July 22, 2011, he exploded a car bomb in a government building sector of Oslo, killing eight. He then made his way to the island of Utøya, situated in a lake. The island is owned by the youth organization of the Labor Party, and young Laborites were camping there at the time. Over the course of an hour, he hunted down and killed 69.

Like Bissonnette, he was specifically concerned about the supposed danger of Islamization. In addition to his Internet preoccupations, he also authored a massive nationalistic and racist manifesto. For both Breivik and Bissonnette, the role of the borderless Internet augments the influence of the national milieu.

For a number of years Breivik had been a member of the Progress Party. The party has grown in size, power, and influence to the point that it is now the junior partner in government, along with the Conservatives.

The Progress Party is anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim. It has come out strongly against any accommodations for Muslims. No hijabs for police. No halal meals in prison. It has been observed that its opposition to immigration and hostility to “the other” have been keys to its electoral success. Siv Jensen, leader of the party, declared that Norway was being subjected to Islamization by stealth. The party sees multiculturalism as a failure.

Norway’s sociocultural milieu was the ground from which a Breivik could sprout. Culture defines what behaviors are acceptable. It also defines what deviance might look like. All the political leaders were horrified by Breivik’s slaughter. There was a pledge to tone down the rhetoric. The pledge was honored in the breach, and it was anti-Muslim business as usual.

In Quebec the scene is quite the same. Again the general horror about the massacre. Again the commitment to tone down the rhetoric. Again, with the partial exception of Couillard’s change in position, it is business as usual. The philosopher and social psychologist Theodor Adorno once commented on the strong anti-Semitism in pre-war Bavaria. Bavaria had no Jews. Today the Quebec Liberal government, acknowledging that there are no women clamoring to wear face coverings while working for the public service, nevertheless legislates to outlaw the practice. The two largest opposition parties demand that the legislation be expanded.

The sociocultural milieu defines the form that deviance is apt to take. Quebec has given us Alexandre Bissonnette. A special acknowledgment can go to the role played by the Party Québécois, his party. The Liberal premier has taken a strong stand against a broad dress code, while favoring a narrow one. Just as Taylor found his former halfway stance untenable, Couillard should also find his to be.

Article Author: Reuel S. Amdur

Reuel Amdur writes from Val-des-Monts, Quebec, Canada.