As controversy swirls, François Legault concedes Islamophobia exists in Quebec

As controversy swirls, François Legault concedes Islamophobia exists in Quebec

Quebec Premier François Legault has clarified his controversial comments about Islamophobia, now saying such discrimination exists but that it is not widespread.

In a statement Friday, the premier's office said Legault meant to say that there isn't an "undercurrent" of Islamophobia in Quebec.

"Quebecers are open and tolerant and will continue to be," the statement said.

"Unfortunately, too many racist acts still occur today in our society, and everything must be done to denounce and combat hatred and intolerance. We will continue to honour the memory of the six victims of the tragedy of the Quebec mosque on Jan. 29."

Friday's statement comes after the premier told reporters Thursday that there's no need for a day devoted to action against Islamophobia because it's not a problem in the province. Legault was responding to calls for the anniversary of the Quebec mosque shooting to be established as an anti-Islamaphobia day.

"I don't think there is Islamophobia in Quebec, so I don't see why there would be a day dedicated to Islamophobia," he said Thursday.

Those comments prompted an outpouring of criticism from Muslim groups. They want the province to take a stronger stance against anti-Muslim actions and rhetoric.

'Out of touch'

Ihsaan Gardee, executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, said Legault's initial comments were "clearly out of touch with the realities of Islamophobia on the ground in Quebec."

​Karim Elabed, an imam at a mosque in Lévis, a small city across the river from Quebec City, said the premier's comments were irresponsible.

"The general opinion is that there is no problem in Quebec. But the problem is real," he said.

The province should be striving toward educating the future generations and teaching youth to accept cultural differences, said Elabed.

Liberal MP Gaétan Barrette also said Legault's comments were out of touch with reality, though he too cautioned the problem isn't "systemic" in Quebec.

"I'm not saying that society is Islamophobic. I say there are people, no doubt, who are," he said.

Justin Tang/Canadian Press
Justin Tang/Canadian Press

At the federal level, the Commons heritage committee recommended last year that Jan. 29 be declared a "national day of remembrance and action on Islamophobia and other forms of religious discrimination."

Toronto Mayor John Tory announced this week that the city was proclaiming Jan. 29 a day of remembrance and action on Islamophobia.

Like the ruling Coalition Avenir Québec, Quebec's previous Liberal government also rejected the idea of setting aside a day against Islamophobia.

Former premier Philippe Couillard said last year he preferred to make a commitment against racism and discrimination, rather than single out a particular group or religion.

The latest controversy comes amid a renewed focus on the province's longstanding debate over the accommodation of religious minorities.

Legault has promised legislation early this year blocking public servants in positions of authority, including police officers, judges, prosecutors, prison guards and teachers, from wearing religious symbols at work.

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