The Quebec City mosque shooting took place in 2017 at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City, located in the suburb of Sainte-Foy. The gunman, 27-year-old Alexandre Bissonnette, pleaded guilty to six counts of first-degree murder and six counts of attempted murder. It was one of the deadliest mass shootings in Canadian history, described as an act of terrorism by both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard. The event prompted widespread public debate around Islamophobia, racism and the rise of right-wing terrorism in Canada.
On 29 January 2017 at around 7:54 p.m., Alexandre Bissonnette approached the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City where evening prayers had just ended. He loaded a semi-automatic .223 rifle and aimed at two men who had exited the mosque. The rifle jammed when he attempted to shoot. Bissonnette dropped the rifle and shot the men with a 9-mm Glock pistol. Bissonnette then entered the mosque, where he continued shooting with the pistol. He killed six men and critically injured five others in under two minutes. Bissonnette fled the scene in a car. Around 20 minutes later he phoned 911 and turned himself over to police.
Several thousand people attended a vigil on 30 January near the mosque where the shooting took place. Similar vigils were held that week across the country, including in Montreal, Toronto and Edmonton. Pope Francis was among dozens of world leaders to offer condolences. In Paris, the lights of the Eiffel Tower were shut off in memory of the victims.
City of Markham, Ontario vigil for victims of Quebec City mosque shooting. Flickr.
The victims were Khaled Belkacemi, 60, a science professor at Laval University; Azzeddine Soufiane, 57, the owner of a local grocery store; Aboubaker Thabti, 44, a pharmacy technician and poultry plant worker; Mamadou Tanou Barry, 42, an accounting technician; Abdelkrim Hassane, 41, a computer analyst for the Quebec government; and Ibrahima Barry, 39, an IT worker for the Quebec government.
Vigil in Montreal after the mosque shooting in Quebec City. Photo: Eric Demers, Flickr.
In a surveillance video of the attack, Soufiane is seen rushing toward Bissonnette in an attempt to disarm him. The Quebec government awarded Soufiane a medal of bravery after his death. The government also gave a medal of bravery to Aymen Derbali for trying to distract the shooter. Derbali was shot seven times and spent two months in a coma. He now often speaks publicly in Quebec about racial and religious intolerance.
Motive and Sentencing
Bissonnette pleaded guilty in March 2018 to six counts of first-degree murder and six counts of attempted murder. Five of the attempted murder charges were for the five men he wounded. The sixth charge represented the 35 other people who were inside the mosque at the time of the shooting. Bissonnette was not charged with terrorism-related offences.
During sentencing arguments, the court heard evidence about Bissonnette’s activities in the weeks and months leading up to the shooting. The search history on his internet browser showed he was an avid follower of radical right-wing figures in the United States, such as David Duke, the former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, and Richard Spencer, a prominent white nationalist.
In the days before carrying out the attack, Bissonnette also repeatedly visited the Twitter feed of US president Donald Trump, who had just imposed a controversial entry ban on travelers from Muslim-majority countries. Bissonnette later told police that he feared his family would be attacked by Islamic terrorists.
On 8 February 2019, a Quebec Superior Court judge spent nearly six hours reading Bissonnette’s sentence aloud during a hearing attended by families of the victims and survivors of the shooting. “His crimes were truly motivated by race, and a visceral hatred toward Muslim immigrants,” Justice François Huot said in a Quebec City courtroom. Huot settled on a sentence of life in prison with no chance of parole for 40 years. The judge determined that Bissonnette was not fully sound of mind when he committed the attack. The sentence was appealed by both the Crown, who said it was too lenient, and the defense, who said it was too harsh. The appeals are expected to be heard in 2020.
Religious tensions in Quebec
Religious minority groups, including Muslims, have been at the heart of debate about the visibility of religious symbols in Quebec's public sphere. A 2007–2008 government commission into the question of “reasonable accommodations” co-chaired by Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor recommended establishing certain limits on religious clothing in the civil service. Since the early 2000s, successive provincial governments in Quebec have sought to regulate symbols such as the hijab, niqab and kippa through various forms of legislation. (See Quebec Charter of Values.)
Even before the 2017 shooting, the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City had been the target of Islamophobic or anti-Muslim acts. In 2016, a pig’s head was left outside the mosque during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Quebec City’s Muslim population is around 10,000 people, and many have testified to experiencing discrimination on the basis of their faith. The number of reported hate crimes against Muslims in Quebec tripled in the year of the shooting.
Aftermath of the attack
Bissonnette’s actions have received international attention. In March 2019, 49 Muslims were killed in mass shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. Bissonnette’s name, along with those of several other mass murderers and far-right white supremacists, was written on equipment allegedly used in the attack.
In Quebec City, several grassroots and multi-faith efforts to bridge the divide between cultural communities have taken place. City officials also helped secure land for a Muslim cemetery in August 2017, shortly after a small town outside Quebec City called Saint-Apollinaire voted to reject a similar project.
The Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City was renovated after the shooting and remains an active place of worship. Mosque representatives have become involved in many social causes, including gun control and offering support to other victims of political violence around the world. A tree was planted outside the building on Chemin Sainte-Foy to commemorate those who died in the attack. A larger memorial in Quebec City is set to be completed by 2020.
Nanaimo, B.C. vigil for victims of Quebec City mosque attack. Photo by Russell McNeil, Flickr.