Voters reject Quebec City-area Muslim cemetery project
Published Sunday, July 16, 2017 8:49PM EDT
Last Updated Monday, July 17, 2017 7:27PM EDT
It's a bitterly disappointing result for Quebec City's Muslim community.
The proposal to build a Muslim cemetery in the small town of Saint-Apollinaire has been rejected in a referendum by just three votes.
In the end, 36 people cast ballots, and while 16 of them agreed with the proposal, 19 of them said 'no' to allowing Muslims to have a place of their own after their death. One ballot was rejected.
It's a bitter pill to swallow for the thousands of Muslims in Quebec City.
"How can it be that 19 (people) can stop a project by several thousand people? It doesn't make sense!" said Mohamed Kesri, the man mandated by the Quebec City mosque to lead the project.
The plan for the cemetery was developed after January's deadly mosque shooting, but the issue was sent to a referendum after enough people came forward to oppose the project.
Only 49 people who lived near the Harmonia Funeral Home were eligible to vote in the zoning change referendum.
Those who opposed the project said Muslims should have been content with a multi-denominational cemetery.
"We could make accommodations with a multi-denominational [cemetery]. It would be a reasonable accommodation I find," said resident Victor Hugo Castro.
Saint-Apollinaire Mayor Bernard Ouellet said he was disappointed by the result, which he chalked up to "fear and disinformation."
"I think there needs to be more understanding when it comes to Muslims," he said. "I've said this from the beginning, I think what turned people against (the project) is a lot of misunderstanding about that group," he said.
Ouellet and all of his council members supported the cemetery.
But another resident, who was involved in the campaigning, said she and many others believe a multi-faith cemetery would be a better choice for the city.
"Multi-denominational is the future," said Sunny Letourneau, who lives outside the voting area but says she would have voted 'no' had she cast a ballot.
"Young people under 50 are more and more numerous in not wanting to attend any church at all."
Letourneau said various other solutions were proposed, including an Islamic section in a multi-faith cemetery.
Far from being a victory, she said the referendum results were sad for everyone.
"People are extremely divided," she said through tears. "Some families are being driven apart by this."
The mayor of Quebec City, Regis Labeaume, said the referendum results were one reason the provincial government has given cities new powers to bypass citizen referendums.
"You had 49 people that had the right to decide on a subject, on a project that has consequences all over the province. In terms of governance, it's quite special," said Labeaume.
Ouellet says he doesn't have a "Plan B" now that the initiative has been rejected.
"I don't have another step in sight," he said.
However members of the Islamic Cultural Centre said their fight for a cemetery is not over.
They are considering filing a complaint with the Quebec Human Rights Commission because they feel being denied a Muslim-only cemetery is a case of religious discrimination.
Kesri previously indicated he wouldn't give up the project, saying the Muslim community deserves the same rights as all other religious groups, which have their own burial grounds.
"There are Catholic cemeteries, Protestant cemeteries, Jewish cemeteries -- we aren't inventing anything here," he told The Canadian Press last week.
In June, Quebec adopted a law allowing municipalities to forgo referendums on land projects in order to give more power to local authorities.
Kesri said Quebec City's Muslim community was considering pressuring politicians to have the new legislation applied -- if need be.
Quebec City's Muslims have been looking for a cemetery for two decades, but made a renewed push after they completed the payment for the city's main mosque, in 2011, Kesri said.
It was there last January that a gunman shot dead six men in the main prayer hall and injured 19 others. The bodies were sent overseas and to Montreal for burial.
With files from The Canadian Press