An emotional commemoration marking the sixth anniversary of the Quebec City mosque shooting was held Sunday for the first time in the same room where many of the victims were killed.
Mamadou Tanou Barry, Ibrahima Barry, Khaled Belkacemi, Abdelkrim Hassane, Azzeddine Soufiane and Aboubaker Thabti were gunned down not long after evening prayers at the suburban mosque on Jan. 29, 2017. Nineteen others were injured in the hate-fuelled attack and 17 children were left without their fathers.
Mosque co-founder Boufeldja Benabdallah was among those who spoke Sunday evening and said his thoughts were with the families of the victims, the children left without their fathers, the widows of the six fallen men and those who survived.
"You told us, 'You must not forget our husbands,'" Benabdallah said addressing the widows. "We have not forgotten, each one has their name."
On the second National Day of Remembrance of the Quebec City Mosque Attack and Action against Islamophobia, community members and dignitaries sat on the ground shoulder to shoulder in the prayer room where the attack occurred six years earlier, also on a Sunday evening.
Said Akjour, who survived the attack, said he could still pinpoint where his brothers fell that night.
"From this huge loss there are positives, even just by being here tonight to say no to violence, it's thanks to my fallen brothers," Akjour said, his voice trembling.
What people are reading
His message was to fellow Muslims to reach out, to share and to allow themselves to be known.
"This attack happened because there was mistrust, there was ignorance about what a mosque is," Akjour said. "The person who came in here, who did all this damage and took the lives of humans didn't see them as humans, as citizens, as fathers."
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told attendees it is important to send a message that violence and hatred have no place in this country. He also spoke of the Afzaal family killed in London, Ont. and Mohamed-Aslim Zafis, a volunteer who was killed outside an Etobicoke mosque, victims targeted because of their faith and culture.
"Canada is a place of openness and respect," Trudeau said. "And we need to recommit ourselves to these values every day."
The gunman behind the Quebec attack pleaded guilty and was originally sentenced to life in prison with no parole eligibility for 40 years, but saw that window reduced to 25 years after a 2022 Supreme Court ruling.
Aymen Derbali, who was shot seven times as he rushed the gunman and was left paralyzed as a result, choked back tears as he said he was at peace with the court's decision. But he told attendees he wanted everyone to see the mosque shooting as a terrorist attack.
"We see around the world when it's an attack perpetrated by a Muslim, it's a terrorist attack but the same attack by a non-Muslim is not," said Derbali. "It's a flagrant injustice and if it's a terrorist attack, it's a terrorist attack, it shouldn't be a label reserved for Muslims."
Mohamed Labidi, president of the mosque, said six years have passed but the impact of that night is forever engraved in their hearts and minds.
"We all have a duty to remember to ensure that no other Quebecer or Canadian falls to the bullets of hatred," Labidi said.
Labidi lauded positive actions by the federal government, including tougher gun laws, a day to commemorate the attack and the naming of Amira Elghawaby, a journalist and human rights advocate from Ottawa named as Canada's first special representative to combat Islamophobia.
But he said there remains more to do and called on the Quebec government to take concrete actions to combat Islamophobia.
On Thursday, mosque officials strongly denounced Law 21, Quebec's secularism law on the books since 2019 which prohibits the wearing of religious symbols such as hijabs, kippas and turbans by teachers, judges, police and other government employees deemed to be in positions of authority.
Quebec Premier François Legault defended the law on Friday as "reasonable" and told reporters it was "wrong" to claim it had made Islamophobia easier.
Legault did not attend Sunday's event due to what a spokesman described as a family obligation. He paid tribute to the victims in a tweet earlier Sunday and the Quebec government was represented by deputy premier Geneviève Guilbault.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 29, 2023.
— By Sidhartha Banerjee in Montreal with files from Caroline Plante in Quebec City.