Fate of Quebec town's proposed Muslim cemetery rests with a few

The woman opened the door to find two men standing before her, both strangers.

Bruno Fortin and Mustapha Skakni were on the doorstep to seek her support for a controversial project in town.“Bonjour Madame,” Mr. Fortin said, “I’m in favour of establishing a cemetery for the Muslim community in Saint-Apollinaire. We want to know if you want to discuss the project.”

The words barely exited Mr. Fortin’s mouth before the woman’s face hardened. “Absolutely not,” she said as she shut the door. “I want nothing to do with it. Goodnight.”

The two men retreated. Chalk up another “No” vote in a referendum battle where every vote carries outsized importance. Quebec has a way of making news with referendums, and the one being held in Saint-Apollinaire is no different. On July 16, the small town of 6,000 will tackle a big issue when citizens vote on whether the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City can open a cemetery on a wooded plot of land.

Rarely have so few been empowered to decide for so many. Only 62 people are eligible to vote – their properties adjoin the proposed cemetery site – and only 49 had bothered putting their name on the voter’s list as the registration deadline approached Tuesday evening. Depending on turnout, this means that a handful of people will determine the fate of a Muslim community in Quebec City numbering in the thousands, and send out a larger message to Muslims across the province.

“If this fails, it would be a disappointment to an entire community,” said Mohamed Kesri, who is overseeing the cemetery project for the Islamic Cultural Centre. The controversy cuts to the heart of the place and the future of the fast-growing Muslim population in Quebec. The project in Saint-Apollinaire, about a 20-minute drive from Quebec City, would be only the second Muslim-run burial ground in the province. As it stands, most Muslims in the provincial capital either repatriate the bodies of loved ones back to their homelands, or drive three hours to a Muslim-run cemetery near Montreal.

The Islamic Cultural Centre had already been seeking a cemetery site for a decade before this January, when a gunman opened fire at its Grand Mosque and shot six worshippers dead. But the killings could not have added more poignancy, or urgency, to the project. Five of the victims’ bodies were returned for burial to their homelands and only one was interred in the province.

The debate in Saint-Apollinaire reflects a wider issue across Canada about citizenship, belonging and the fundamental rituals of life – and death. As Canada becomes more diverse, so do needs for services and burial grounds to match that diversity. Religious freedoms are safeguarded by the Charter, but Yannick Boucher, an anthropology lecturer at the University of Montreal who has studied Muslim funeral rites in Quebec, said Muslim communities often find their paths blocked by zoning and land restrictions at the municipal level. Yet one’s place of burial is a fundamental marker of belonging, he said.

“In death, you face the ultimate form of integration. It’s integration through the disintegration of your body in your new home,” Mr. Boucher said. “You’re giving your body to your new home.”

A growing number of non-denominational cemeteries in Quebec are opening Muslim sections to accommodate a community estimated at 250,000 that now forms the second-largest religious group in the province after Christians. One such section opened recently near Quebec City, one of four in the province. Still, Mr. Boucher said, access to a Muslim-run cemetery close to Quebec City remains a sensitive topic, particularly after the mosque shootings.

“Cemeteries are a place of remembrance that are highly symbolic,” he said. “They’re places that make you feel part of a society.”

When the proposal for a burial ground landed in Saint-Apollinaire, it initially seemed like a straightforward matter.

A funeral operator, Harmonia, struck a deal to sell a piece of land to the Islamic centre for $215,000, and the town council voted unanimously in favour. But the agreement required a zoning change, which opened up the path for a referendum. A core of citizens in Saint-Apollinaire began to grumble about the project; an anonymous tract was distributed in town hinting darkly at “the truth” behind the plan. Some saw the cemetery as a gateway to a mosque, or to the arrival of veiled women in a town that, according to the most recent census figures, is 92 per cent Christian. There was no record of a single Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, Sikh or Hindu in town.

Soon, a “No” committee began to mobilize and collected enough signatures to force a referendum, initiating rounds of door-to-door campaigning.

That’s when Mr. Fortin, a long-time resident of Saint-Apollinaire, stepped up to offer a counter-view. He reached out to Mr. Skakni, who has lived in Quebec since 1990 and lost two close friends in the mosque shooting.

“I’m scandalized that people are resisting the project. I believe the Muslim community should have the right to rest in peace among their own,” said Mr. Fortin, who worked in health and safety before his retirement. “People from Saint-Apollinaire aren’t bad people. But it’s a population that has been settled here for a long time, many of them on ancestral lands, and a lot of them are afraid. They associate all Muslims with al-Qaeda.”

He and Mr. Skakni, an economic-development counsellor and former president of the Islamic Cultural Centre, formed a two-person “Yes” committee to go door-to-door to try to dispel citizens’ apprehensions. Rumours had been circulating about supposed Muslim burial rites that they were ready to disprove. For several evenings, the pair travelled along the few roads in the referendum zone, an area dotted by pick-up trucks, grazing cattle, bungalows and tracts of farmland.

One evening recently, the pair visited nine homes. Four people who answered the door were indifferent or non-committal about the cemetery project. Two said they would support it. Three were adamantly – sometimes angrily – opposed.

“With everything you see happening around the world, I have a lot of trouble with it,” one resident, Marcel Croteau, said in his driveway about the cemetery. “Are we going to end up losing our freedoms here, too? Once they come here, maybe we’re going to see a mosque. We’re already feeling invaded.”

Others were receptive. When Mr. Fortin and Mr. Skakni rang the bell at the home of Simon-Yannick Plourde, the 39-year-old teacher and father of two invited the visitors to sit down at his dining room table.“I hope your project works out, and that Saint-Apollinaire will welcome everyone,” Mr. Plourde said in his dining room, which was adorned with two crucifixes.

Mr. Skakni spoke up. “If I die, I don’t want to be buried in Montreal or in Algeria,” he said.

“We have to put ourselves in your place,” Mr. Plourde said, “and ask ourselves how it would feel to have to drive 300 kilometres to bury our dead. This makes no sense, regardless of what your religion is.”

The voting exercise in Saint-Apollinaire has also cast a light on the referendum process. Quebec is alone among the provinces in allowing referendums on municipal planning issues. The Quebec National Assembly adopted legislation last month that will allow municipalities more flexibility about how they consult citizens, after hearing that municipal councils were seeing projects blocked by small numbers of citizens. In the future, towns will be able to bypass a referendum if they’ve put an alternate consultation process in place.

But the changes come too late for Saint-Apollinaire, where the result on July 16 will come down to the will of a small group of people. “I wonder if we’ll even get 40 people who show up,” said Mayor Bernard Ouellet, who supports the cemetery project. “It will be tight.”

In the end, the mayor could have the final say. If the referendum results in a tie, Mr. Ouellet gets to cast the deciding ballot.