QUEBEC CITY – Quebec's premier acknowledged Tuesday that his French-speaking province has its "demons" in terms of attitudes toward Muslims, but he said it is generally open and accepting despite this week's deadly attack on a mosque and long-simmering debates about religious accommodation.
"Xenophobia, racism and exclusion are present here," Premier Philippe Couillard said at a news conference. "We have to acknowledge that and work together."
Couillard was grilled by reporters two days after a man entered a Quebec City mosque and shot six people to death and wounded 19. French Canadian university student Alexandre Bissonnette, 27, has been charged with murder and attempted murder in the massacre.
Bissonnette was a fan of French far-right leader Marine Le Pen and U.S. President Donald Trump. Those who monitor extremist groups in Quebec described him as someone who took extreme nationalist, pro-Le Pen positions at Laval University and on social media.
Most Canadians are proud of the country's welcoming attitude toward immigrants and all religions, but Quebec has had a contentious debate over race and religious accommodation. The previous Parti Quebecois government called for a ban on ostentatious religious symbols such as the hijab in public institutions.
A separatist premier, the late Jacques Parizeau, won notoriety by blaming "money and the ethnic vote" for losing a 1995 vote on Quebec becoming independent from Canada. He resigned a day later.
Asked whether the atmosphere is "more insidious" in Quebec than elsewhere in Canada, Couillard replied: "Every society has to live with its demons."
"Our society is not perfect. No society is," he said.
He said politicians in the province have to be aware of the words they use and urged Quebecers to continue expressing solidarity with the Muslim community.
"We've heard stories of women being spat on in the streets," Couillard said. "People feel they have a license to do that now."
More than 50 people were at the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre when the shooting began during evening prayers Sunday. All the dead and wounded were men. Of the four victims who remained hospitalized, two were in critical condition, authorities said. The dead ranged in age from 39 to 60.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Couillard both characterized the attack as a terrorist act, which came amid strong criticism around the world over Trump's temporary travel ban for people from seven Muslim countries.
Neighbors on a sleepy suburban street where the man charged in the Quebec City mosque shooting was raised said as that as a kid he played baseball, swam in backyard pools and explored the nearby forest like many local boys.
One said Bissonnette had a passion for guns. Rejean Bussieres, whose son is about the same age, said Bissonnette used to shoot pellet guns in the woods behind his house as a youngster and would invite his son to come over to watch violent movies.