SAINT-APOLLINAIRE, – It was by the slimmest of margins that a plan to establish the Quebec City area’s first Muslim-owned and run cemetery was defeated in a referendum Sunday by a vote of 19 to 16.
Voters were deciding whether or not to allow a zoning change for the proposed site in Saint-Apollinaire, 35 kilometres southwest of Quebec City.
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.
In the end, the outcome came down to the 35 people who cast valid ballots — a tough pill to swallow for the man who led the project.
“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.
Saint-Apollinaire Mayor Bernard Ouellet also 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.
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.”
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.
Due to a Quebec law permitting referendums on zoning matters, only 49 people who live and work around the proposed site were eligible to vote.
Thirty-six of 49 registered voters cast ballots. One was rejected.
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.
— By Morgan Lowrie in Montreal