One way or the other, Sunday's vote on Muslim cemetery is set to send a strong message
Published Friday, July 14, 2017 8:42AM EDT
Last Updated Sunday, July 16, 2017 9:37PM EDT
About a 30-minute drive southwest of Quebec City lies Saint-Apollinaire, a quiet, rural community of just under 6,000 people.
It’s not the kind of place that normally makes headlines.
But for months now, this small town has been at the centre of growing controversy drawing attention across the province and even the country.
It all comes down to a local referendum on Sunday where voters will determine if the Muslim community should have its own cemetery in Saint-Apollinaire.
“We knew there could be controversy, but we didn't expect it to go this far,” said Mayor Bernard Ouellet, adding that it’s an issue he never expected.
There is no Muslim-owned cemetery in Quebec City. When there is a death in the area, most Muslim families bury their loved ones near Montreal or repatriate their bodies to their birth countries.
The matter came to the forefront after January's deadly shooting at the Islamic Cultural Centre – but there was a need long before then.
Mohamed Kesri, secretary of the centre, said members of the mosque have been pushing for a cemetery there for at least a decade.
“There are so many new Muslim immigrants settling in Quebec City now,” he said. “Those who've been here for forty years are becoming grandparents, and they're starting to ask themselves about the end of their days.”
Earlier this year, the Islamic Cultural Centre reached an agreement with Harmonia, the Saint-Apollinaire funeral home that specializes in cremations but is also focused on serving different religious denominations.
The Muslim community would pay $215,000 to own a 60,000-square-foot plot of land, bordering Harmonia's non-denominational burial ground.
It would create a sacred spot of their own allowing for traditional Muslim burials, according to their customs.
“We would have two cemeteries living in harmony, side-by-side,” said Harmonia’s director of operations, Sylvain Roy.
The town council voted unanimously in favour of the proposal, but it would require modifying a zoning permit.
Soon, a small citizens group started speaking out, voicing its opposition to the project – but Sunny Letourneau of the Citizen Alternative Committee believes her group's message has been misunderstood.
Letourneau said rejecting the project isn't a rejection of Muslims.
“On the contrary,” she said. “We're in a multicultural society. We live together, we work together, why wouldn't we die together?”
Last weekend, a non-denominational cemetery near Quebec City inaugurated a section for Muslims, within its own grounds.
Letourneau supported that initiative, but said an entirely separate cemetery for Muslims owned by the Islamic Cultural Centre doesn't sit well with her.
She said she sees cemeteries as a reflection of society and believes they should include everyone, regardless of their religious beliefs.
“A cemetery that would integrate everyone, no matter its religion, faith, colour, belief, that it is accessible to all,” she said.
Inclusion has always been at the heart of her fight and she said she’s hurt by accusations of racism.
“In the end, we still stick you with a label that suits you. It's appalling,” she said.
Kesri, however, said it's difficult to see anything other than discrimination.
“They're okay with a cemetery, but not a cemetery for Muslims. That doesn't work,” he said.
The matter has created tension, with both sides accusing each other of spreading misinformation and leaving some not knowing what to think; undecided and a bit fearful.
Ouellet knows there are some fears based on negative stereotypes about Muslims.
“Fear is something that’s not easy to control,” he said.
In the end, the fate of the project is in the hands of a few dozen citizens who will vote in the local referendum on Sunday.
Only 62 people were eligible for the voters' list because of their proximity to the proposed cemetery site, though only 49 people bothered to register.
For Kesri, the possibility of seeing the project rejected based on fewer than 50 votes is tough to swallow.
“If it was the majority who refused something, we’d bend to the majority. That's normal. But a handful of people?” he said.
Whatever the outcome, the vote in Saint-Apollinaire is sure to send a strong message to the rest of the province.