Canadians Would Not Say the Word 'Muslim' in Remembering the Quebec Mosque Attack

August 9, 2018


I asked the same ten questions to almost forty Canadians. Those questions revolved around two dates – January 29th, 2017 and December 6th, 1989. What happened? What do they signify? How did we as a society respond?


Many things happened on those days, of course. Retirements, or days of drudgery at work and school. But those two dates also - widely - refer to episodes of mass violence in Canada, committed against vulnerable people in society.


On, January 29th, 2017, just last year, Muslim men were gathered for prayer at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City. A young, white man also came to the service. His name was Alexandre Bissonnette, and he killed six of the worshippers, and wounded many others.


The date of December 6th, 1989 has much more cache among the people I interviewed. Many immediately answered that the date refers to the Montreal Massacre, or the Ecole Polytechnqiue Shooting. They often remembered that fourteen women were killed by a violent misogynist, Marc Lepine, who believed they had taken his rightful place at engineering school. 


Not only did people remember December 6th much more, but most remembered the crucial factor in the tragedy - that it was an attack against women, an act of violent misogyny. 


But that kind of almost unanimous memory of the event as an attack against women was absent in the testimonials from people describing the Quebec Mosque Attack. The testimonies usually used universal, generic language like “religions,” “mosques,” “victims,” or “people" to describe the Muslim men who were killed. Not one person described the victims as Muslim by name - a central element of the attack, nor did they talk about how many of the men were immigrants. 


“I do remember that, and I do remember that there was a priest there, and that they had slaughtered a lot of people, in some random attack.”


- Anonymous Response 


Is this a result of avoidance – an active choice to use generic, encoded language because they were unwilling to name the intended victims– or is this a reflection of poor media coverage, which emphasized a universalized reading of the event?


Perhaps both. 


But it points to the ongoing processes of erasure and collective mismemory that surround the Quebec Mosque Attack. 


For example, Scott Reid who is a conservative MP, introduced Motion No. 153 which would "declare January 29 Canada's national day of solidarity with victims, whatever their faith, of anti-religious bigotry and violence." For him, the date does not signify an attack committed against Muslims, an act of violent Islamophobia, but rather violence against religions more broadly. 


How we use language and frame events is incredibly significant. This is not a new suggestion. 'Muslim' as a category seemed like an unspeakable word to many Canadians - which contributes to constructing new social and historical 'truths,' in which Muslim Canadians are non-existent, and Islamophobia is not an urgent problem in society. When we think in universal terms, we exclude and avoid specific dynamics and vulnerabilities of marginalized communities. 


For example, to say that women make eighty-one cents to the dollar men earn ignores how women of colour make far less in comparison. 


This is why this project is so important - the Quebec Mosque Attack cannot be remembered simply as an attack against a generic religion. It must be contextualized by regarding it as part of the rising violence against Muslims (253% increase over four years) and people of colour, using a methodology of anti-racism. 


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