Quebec mayor whose citizens rejected Muslim cemetery won't reintroduce project

By The Canadian Press
July 17, 2017 - 8:00am

MONTREAL — There are no plans to use a new Quebec law in order to reintroduce the Muslim cemetery project in Saint-Apollinaire, the town's mayor said Monday, a day after voters rejected the proposal in a referendum.

People in the community of 6,000 southwest of Quebec City are stressed and tired after being solicited on the issue for months, Bernard Ouellet said.

"I'm not ready to embark my citizens on another experience like this again," he said in an interview.

A proposal to establish the Quebec City area's first Muslim-run cemetery necessitated a referendum after enough people came forward to oppose the project.

It was defeated Sunday by a vote of 19 to 16. 

Opponents of the plan said Muslims should be buried in Islamic sections of existing cemeteries in the region and not have burial grounds owned and operated by mosques.

The land for the proposed cemetery is located in a sparsely populated area in Saint-Apollinaire, 35 kilometres southwest of Quebec City, so only a handful of people had the right to vote on the proposed zoning change.

Leaders in Quebec City's Muslim community have said they plan to ask politicians to use a new law, which permits municipalities to forgo referendums on development projects, in order to bring the proposal once again before citizens.

Mohamed Kesri, the man mandated by Quebec City's mosque to lead the cemetery project, said before the vote the community wouldn't give up if the No side won.

Quebec's legislature passed a law in June giving more power to local governments over matters such as land development, including the right to be exempt from referendums.

Municipal Affairs Minister Martin Coiteux had criticized the old system before the law was adopted. He said it empowered opponents to projects instead of encouraging dialogue between citizens and their elected leaders.

Pierre-Luc Levesque, a spokesman with the Municipal Affairs Department, said the results of Saint-Apollinaire's referendum can't be annulled, but the town could bring a second proposal to citizens under the new law — without going through another vote.

"A municipality that wants to forgo conducting a referendum has to adopt a policy of public consultation that conforms to the rules outlined by the minister," he said in an email.

Those rules haven't been announced yet, however.

"It is not possible for a municipality to forgo the referendum requirement until the rules are put in place and are in force," Levesque said.

Ouellet said the new law "isn't the solution at this time."

"The law doesn't solve everything," he said. "I have a minority of citizens who have been really stressed out for the last three months. They were solicited from all sides. I'm not interested in having them relive that the following day. That's clear."

Julius Grey, a well-known human rights and constitutional lawyer, said Quebec City's Muslim community has other options.

"They could lobby (Saint-Apollinaire) to ignore the results of the referendum and force those opposed to take them to court," he said in an interview.

Grey, who is not involved in the dossier, said the results of the vote violate people's charter rights to freedom of religion.

He said secular people telling Muslims where they can bury their dead is akin to telling a Jew he or she can eat at a normal cafeteria and not keep kosher.

"You don't run a referendum on someone's basic rights," Grey said. "The purpose of the charter is to protect people from the majority."

Prominent Muslims in Quebec reacted strongly on Monday to the referendum results, asking why so few citizens could decide a project aimed at thousands of people in Quebec City.

Quebec City Mayor Regis Labeaume called the outcome "regrettable" but said he didn't want to blame anyone who voted.

"Forty-nine people had the right to kill a project that has such an important sociological impact on the province — that in and of itself is pretty incredible," he said.

Cardinal Gerald Cyprien Lacroix, archbishop of Quebec City, expressed his disappointment on Twitter.

"Like many others, I am disappointed at the result of the referendum," he wrote in French. "It seems completely legitimate for our Muslim brothers and sisters to have a place that is their own to bury their dead in the Quebec City area."

Giuseppe Valiante, The Canadian Press

Sophie Gregoire Trudeau urges girls to have confidence in themselves