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Aymen Derbali poses for a photo in Quebec City on Wednesday, December 27, 2017. Derbali, a father of three, was one of the more than 50 people inside the mosque when a shooter opened fire on Jan. 29, 2017, killing six. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Francis Vachon


by Eden Debebe

The federal government has designated January 29 as a National Day of Remembrance of the Québec City Mosque Attack and Action Against Islamophobia.

Six Muslim men were killed and five others wounded after evening prayer at the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec (Quebec City Islamic Cultural Centre) on Jan. 29, 2017, making it one of the deadliest mass shootings in Canadian history.

The National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) launched a campaign calling on the federal government to commemorate the tragic event as a National Day of Remembrance and Action on Islamophobia, a move that was supported by hundreds of Canadian Muslim organizations, interfaith groups and community partners.

Many cities across Canada had already made the move including Toronto, Markham, Brampton, Montreal and Vancouver.

NCCM Quebec-based board member Stephen Brown put out a statement late Thursday evening thanking everyone for honouring the somber occasion and promising to work towards change.

“We thank the government for officially marking the day in the hearts and minds of all Quebecers and Canadians as a reminder of the lives lost and the work ahead of us to dismantle hate and racism in our country,” Brown said.

“The wounds inflicted on January 29, 2017 will not be forgotten. By remembering January 29th, we commit to fighting Islamophobia, hate, and intolerance.”

People hold photos of the victims during a vigil, Wednesday, January 29, 2020 in Montreal to commemorate the third anniversary of the mosque shooting in Quebec City that left six people dead.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Even without national recognition, it’s a day many in the community won’t soon forget, including Aymen Derbali, one of the five people seriously injured in the attack.

“I can move my hand and fingers but I cannot close my hands. That’s where I got the seventh bullet, I was hit here in my arm,” Derbali said.

“He saw me raising my hand for the tashahhud (Islamic way to prepare for death).”*

Derbali has been called a hero for stepping in front of others to protect them during the attack, getting shot seven times himself and leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.

In an interview with OMNI Television, Derbali shared his hopes for a peaceful future.

“The anniversary of this terrorist attack on the mosque…I feel bitter when I remember my brothers who fell as martyrs,” Derbali said.

“But we always try to look for hope and look to the future. Especially when I think about our kids; we want them to grow up in an environment free of hatred and discrimination against Muslims.”*

In 2019, Québec Premier François Legault rejected a proposal to have Jan. 29 declared a Day of Action Against Islamophobia, saying “I don’t think there is Islamophobia in Quebec”. A press aide later clarified the Premier meant to say “there is no current of Islamophobia” in the province.

According to Statistics Canada, reports of hate crimes against Muslims peaked in the months following the mass shooting at the Islamic Cultural Centre, almost tripling from 41 in 2016 to 117 in 2017. Even before the 2017 shooting, the mosque had been the target of Islamophobic acts, with a pig’s head left outside the building during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in 2016.

In December 2020, Québec City revealed “Vivre Ensemble”, a memorial located near the Islamic Cultural Centre of Québec honouring victims of the shooting.

Megda Belkacemi, daughter of Khaled Belkacemi who died during the shooting, walks away at the inauguration of a memorial to the 2017 mosque shooting, Tuesday, December 1, 2020 in Quebec City. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot

Alexandre Bissonnette, 30, plead guilty in March 2018 to six counts of first-degree murder and six of attempted murder and was sentenced to 40 years with no parole in 2019. That sentencing was reduced to 25 years in November 2020 by the Québec Court of Appeal, which ruled that his sentence violated Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In the ruling, the panel said the reduced sentence was not a judgment on the horror of Bissonnette’s actions, but rather on the constitutionality of the law.

His murder victims were Mamadou Tanou Barry, 42; Abdelkrim Hassane, 41; Khaled Belkacemi, 60; Aboubaker Thabti, 44; Azzeddine Soufiane, 57; and Ibrahima Barry, 39.

A series of commemorations marking the fourth anniversary of the Quebec City mosque shooting are taking place Friday and Saturday, including a virtual event organized by Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec on Facebook and Zoom.

with files from The Canadian Press

* translated from Arabic