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LOCAL IMPACT

A nation responds to tragedy with love, letters and prayers

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LOCAL IMPACT

A nation responds to tragedy with love, letters and prayers

BY SUE ALLAN & WANDA O’BRIEN

“Xenophobia, racism and exclusion.”

Two days after six men were shot dead in a Sainte-Foy mosque, the premier of Quebec used a press conference to identify these three accessories to the crime.

Philippe Couillard then urged Quebecers—and Canadians—to work together, “to show the direction we want our society to evolve.”

Khaled Belkacemi, Azzedine Soufiane, Abdelkrim Hassane, Mamadou Tanou Barry, Ibrahima Barry and Aboubaker Thabti were killed where they prayed on Jan 29. Alexandre Bissonnette, 27, has been charged with murder and attempted murder in the shooting spree.

“Thirty-six million hearts are breaking with yours,” Prime Minister Trudeau told Canada’s one million Muslims in the hours after the tragedy. To prove his point, Canadians turned out in solidarity from east to west—and in many points north.

Highlights of a nation’s response to the massacre:

Where: Toronto

Who: Sam Pisani and his Grade 11 students at Humberside Collegiate Institute

What: “I was thinking about what people need to receive in a time that is so dark,” the world religions teacher told CBC News of an assignment he created to help teens debrief. “My students had a lot to say!” Pisani encouraged his students to put pen to paper. Although the letter-writing assignment was voluntary, every student took part. “I cannot begin to imagine how it feels to be targeted and blindly hated,” one teen wrote, “but I would like to inform you that you are not alone.” Pisani says he was blown away by compassion and love—so much so that he decided to share the class assignment. Less than 24 hours after the shooting, Pisani delivered 19 hand-written letters to Toronto’s Islam and Dawah Centre. “It was really heartwarming to see the eloquence and thoughtfulness of the kids,” says Illyas Ally. The assistant imam posted copies of the letters on Facebook—an update that made headlines—and now plans to reroute the original letters to Quebec City.

Toronto teacher and Imam teach hope, tolerance

Where: Dartmouth, Nova Scotia

Who: Grace United Church What: Grace United is a friendly and caring congregation—it says so on the sign outside their church. On that same message board on the morning after the shooting, the parishioners offered this in changeable, church-sign letters: “WE PREACH LOVE AND RESPECT FOR ALL. TODAY WE ARE MUSLIM.” Music director Malcolm Bradley told the CBC that it was something that had to be said. “I just felt that in many ways every Canadian had been assaulted by this event, and it didn’t matter whether you were Christians, atheists or Muslim or Jewish or whatever.”

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Where: Iqaluit

Who: Qanak Collective

What: Canadians across the country turned out in subzero temperatures to demonstrate their care. On Baffin Island, residents made their way along the Road to Nowhere to Iqaluit Masjid, “Canada’s most North-Easternly Mosque.” The call to action came from Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, an artist, who tweeted at 9:49 a.m.: “Hold hands around the mosque to show your love and denounce the killings in Quebec. Noon.” In no time, more than 80 people had gathered to form a circle of solidarity. “We really truly believe in community and working together and in love,” Bathory said. “We need to show this in the face of great hate and tragedy.” Syed Asif Ali, the president of Nunavut’s Islamic Society, told the Nunatsiaq News in an interview from Regina, while encouraging the organization’s vice president to embrace the support. “Please go and receive them,” he advised. “This is their love, their solidarity, you should go there and receive them with a full heart.”

Where: Ottawa Who: Ottawa-Carleton District School Board

What: Like many school boards, the OCDSB lowered flags to half-staff as an expression of solidarity for the Sainte-Foy community. Principals were reminded of ways to support their students using tips from the American Psychological Association, which were then shared with parents.

“We are fortunate to live in a country that is a very welcoming and inclusive nation,” the school board wrote in a letter to parents. “At the OCDSB, we work every day to ensure that our schools, classrooms, hallways and playgrounds are safe and caring spaces for everyone. This week, we will need to work extra hard. As a school system, we have the responsibility and the opportunity to engage young people in a broader conversation about the importance of building a more inclusive society. Our work in promoting a positive school climate is a tremendous opportunity to plant and nurture the seeds of inclusion, respect, and compassion. Our schools, more than any public institution, have the responsibility and obligation to offer safe, caring and bias-free places to learn and work.”

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Where: Toronto — and across the country

Who: Mohamad Fakih What: The founder and CEO of Paramount Fine Foods is one of many individuals moved to help those most closely affected by the tragedy. In an interview with the Globe and Mail, Fakih explained why he’d pledged to pay for the victims’ funerals. “It’s very difficult to turn a negative situation and that negative—to that level, an act of terror—to see positivity out of it.” Fakih worked with Islamic Relief Canada, a charity that launched its own crowdfunding campaign. DawaNet Canada is another organization that has raised online donations. “Canadians did what Canadians do, stand all together and help a community in need,” Fakih said. “That’s made me definitely very honoured and proud to be Canadian.”

From around the world, leaders and communities offered messages of unity and compassion:

Where: Paris—and around the globe

Who: International community What: Global leaders and individuals responded to the Quebec mosque shooting with messages of solidary. @LaTourEiffel dipped into darkness, tweeting: “I will turn my lights off tonight, at midnight, to show my support to Quebec and Canadian people.”

Across the world, political leaders condemned the action. From a German government spokesman: “If the killers intended to set people of different faiths against each other, or to divide them, they must not and will not succeed in that. We stand in mourning beside the Muslim community in Quebec.”

The day before the deadly shooting, a mosque was burnt to the ground in Texas. In response, the local Jewish synagogue opened its doors to all worshippers, while fundraiser efforts are taking place to rebuild the mosque.

And then the international community heard from seven-year-old @AlabedBana, a Syrian refugee now in Turkey, who has gained fame by live-tweeting the conflict from Aleppo. In less than 10 words, the youth shared her overflowing compassion for the world to hear: “Dear Quebec,” she tweeted. “God bless the dead and alive.”

Sue Allan
Sue Allan
Sue Allan

Sue Allan is an editor-at-large at Maclean’s and a board member of L’Arche Ottawa and the Canadian Committee for World Press Freedom. A yoga teacher and hockey mom, she worked with Shelley Page and the Kielburgers on The World Needs Your Kid, a bestselling guide to raising socially conscious children.

Wanda O'Brien
Wanda O'Brien
Wanda O'Brien

Wanda O'Brien loves finding out people’s stories and learning from different cultures. A Canadian abroad, she’s worked on four continents.