QUEBEC CITY – They kept the worshipers’ boots long after their bodies were carried away and their bloodstains were cleaned from the mosque’s carpeted floor. Resting on a shelf inside the Islamic Cultural Center, the six pairs form a humble monument to the victims gunned down by a troubled loner one evening last January after sunset prayer.
Not long ago, Maxime Fiset could have been the killer. A Quebec native who grew up nearby, Fiset founded a right-wing extremist group as a teenager and later drew up plans to carry out his own suicide attack.
“One hundred fifty dollars, three stores and an afternoon: I could have assembled a bomb pretty easily,” he said one recent afternoon.
Instead, Fiset now works for a Montreal nonprofit founded to counter extremism and pull young radicals back from their violent designs. At 28, his story is a lens into the rising ethnic tensions that have gripped Quebec — much as they have many communities in the United States — and also reflects Montreal’s early successes in defusing homegrown terrorism.
While similar efforts face an uncertain future in Minneapolis and other American cities, the Centre for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence (CPRLV) has expanded rapidly, becoming a model for programs in Belgium, France and the rest of Canada.
What sets it apart from projects in Europe and the United States is that it confronts extremism of all stripes — not just Islamist — and focuses on behavior that signals the risk of violence, not just radical ideas.
“Being radical is not a crime — it’s good,” said the center’s director, Herman Deparice-Okomba, speaking through a translator. “Martin Luther King, he was a radical at the time. Gandhi was a radical at the time. So the problem now is not radicalism, it’s violence. If governments don’t understand that, if police don’t understand that, then we will fail everything.”
In addition to operating a 24-hour helpline, the CPRLV leads seminars for police and schoolteachers and counsels people drawn to extremist movements.
Some terrorism analysts question whether a hub with government ties could ever work in the United States. But Eric Rosand, a Brookings Institution fellow and director of the Prevention Project in Washington, D.C., said Montreal’s “centralized, multidisciplinary approach” is highly persuasive.
“If something is going to work, this should work,” Rosand said. “There’s no shortage of countries and cities already needing ... something like this — the challenge is doing it the right way to make sure it’s sustainable.”
Fiset agrees. Although, looking back on the Quebec City mosque shooting, he warns how hard it is to spot a terrorist in the making, or even train others to spot the warnings.
“I thought we had more time,” Fiset said. “I was wrong.”
Behind the CPRLV is a history many Minnesotans will recognize. Muslims represent just 3 percent of Quebec’s population — many of them from French-speaking North African countries — but their presence has triggered divisive debates over religious accommodation, immigration and terrorism.
In 2014, the first of several clusters of students from Montreal’s Collège de Maisonneuve began plotting to leave for Syria to fight with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. At least five made it overseas, and 10 were stopped at Montreal-Trudeau International Airport in May 2015. Also in 2014, an ISIS sympathizer in Montreal killed a member of the Canadian armed forces. A Charter of Values, proposed by the government three years ago, would have banned religious symbols in public and quickly became a flash point in the historically secular province.
Quebec also has Canada’s highest concentration of far-right groups, many of them claiming to guard against a perceived Islamization of traditional French Canadian culture. The Soldiers of Odin, a chapter of an anti-immigrant group based in Finland, patrols some Quebec City neighborhoods at night. Another group, La Meute (The Wolf Pack) has amassed a following of more than 50,000 on a private Facebook page.
“Homegrown terrorism is not just second-generation immigrants turning against their home society, but it is also … these nationalists,” said Jamil Dhaoudi, an English professor who prays at the Quebec City mosque. “If it is a polarized environment, both groups want this.”
Early warning signs
Trendy gastropubs and university art galleries surround the CPRLV’s sixth-floor offices near Montreal’s Latin Quarter. Inside, visitors pass an installation created by youths at the center: a tree sprouting petals with inscriptions like “Égalité,” “Justice!” and “Diversité!”
With $2.5 million in annual support from local and provincial governments, the CPRLV employs a 17-person staff of psychologists, social workers and researchers. Its 24-hour helpline has fielded about 1,500 calls since March 2015.
To assess the risk level of people reported to the hot line, the Center’s Deparice-Okomba had his staff develop a “barometer of behaviors.” On the “insignificant” end of the scale is behavior like adopting new religious beliefs and protesting social injustice. More “worrisome” signs include abruptly cutting off social ties or “legitimizing violence to defend a cause.” Only when someone poses a threat to themselves or others should authorities be called, Deparice-Okomba said. He noted that all but about two dozen calls to the hot line have been handled outside the justice system.
“We have to give responsibility to the community,” he said. “We have to stop thinking that law enforcement is the only way we need to deal with this.”
The center has counseled several former extremists, some of whom lent their stories for a comic book to examine real cases. The comic book, produced with a local illustrator, uses “StarWarz” to represent a violent extremist movement. In it, three Montreal youths describe how they became fanatics and sought to “join the resistance” on another planet after watching videos of atrocities and facing discrimination at home.
One character, representing an actual student from Montreal, defended his “Jedi-ist” views: “That’s the only place left where we can express our beliefs without being criticized all the time.”
The CPRLV is just one element in Quebec’s effort to counter extremist violence. A Montreal-based health research group called SHERPA leads a consortium of 60 professionals who study local extremism, provide training and counseling and tailor a helpline for social workers and health professionals.
In a recent survey of nearly 1,900 junior college students, SHERPA found that hate crimes and discrimination worried students more than terrorism recruitment. To some surprise, the staff concluded that such incidents, more than religiosity, pose the chief risk of triggering violent acts.
“We know now that we can [tell] the colleges and schools … you’ve got to work on bullying, you’ve got to work on racism,” said Ghayda Hassan, a psychology professor and one of the lead consultants on the team. “You’ve got to work on discrimination on your grounds because these are the factors that are pushing youth to radicalize.”
Montreal’s police department also created a unit to investigate and track hate crimes. Police Cmdr. Caroline Cournoyer, who leads the unit, said a 69 percent increase in hate crimes since 2013 is partly attributable to more willingness to call police. She thinks the Quebec City mosque attack has spurred a further rise in calls so far this year.
“I think inside of them they think it can happen here [too],” Cournoyer said.
‘Same dark places’
In 2016 the CPRLV issued its own study of radicalization among college students, which described youths at odds with their families and an increasingly unwelcoming society.
It found an unlikely audience in Fiset.
“I read it and I was like, ‘That’s the story of my life, but for Muslim kids,’ ” Fiset said. “All the steps for radicalization were there, in my life and in this report. That was a life-changing moment ... because I felt I was I understood, I felt I could help.”
Fiset, whose towering figure can create an imposing presence, spent his youth walking Quebec City’s narrow cobblestone streets along the St. Lawrence River. Three hours northeast of Montreal, the old city clings to its French heritage perhaps more than any other place in Quebec.
One evening, while working security at his childhood park, he encountered a group of skinheads who started him down a path of hatred. He logged hours on Stormfront, a popular white nationalist website founded by a former Ku Klux Klan boss; before long, Fiset was wearing bomber jackets and “Doc” Martens to cross-burning parties in the countryside.
In 2007, at 19, Fiset founded a group called the Fédération des Québécois Souche, designed to gather local white nationalists and neo-Nazis under the same banner. He was soon charged with inciting hatred, after group members posted online calls to kill immigrants, and was then arrested for possessing brass knuckles at school — an event that pushed his old friends further away and Fiset closer to violence. But Fiset’s thinking began to evolve as he met customers in a job at a local grocery store and, later, as a bouncer at a gay bar. Fiset said he was moved by the way his bosses trusted that his past wouldn’t affect his work. Yet Stormfront, which had promoted Fiset to be a moderator, booted him after learning about the job at the gay bar. There, he eventually met a woman with whom he now shares a home and a young daughter.
“I really had to ask myself at that moment in my life, what do I agree with?” Fiset said.
He approached the CPRLV last fall, and it hired him to help train others on spotting the indicators of radicalization and assist in occasional interventions. In that job, Fiset met some of the students who had been stopped from going to Syria.
“It was obvious we went to the same dark places,” he said.
‘Could have been me’
When Fiset visited the Quebec City Islamic center one evening early last month, it was the first time he had ever entered a mosque.
The mosque — with a wide glass facade that abuts a busy intersection and the ruins of an old abandoned church — had been a target of hate incidents well before the January attack, most notably a gift basket with a severed pig’s head left outside.
With permission, Fiset snapped a cellphone photo of the orphaned boots, untied and stained by road salt. They belonged to a beloved local butcher, a university professor, two Guinean brothers shot down as they exited the mosque together.
Fiset watched somberly as Zied Kallel, a member of the mosque’s board, walked across a carpet with a bullet-sized tear near the bookshelf. That evening three children, still in their garb from karate lessons, wrestled on the floor inches away from two bullet holes in a window and a few feet from where the butcher, Azzedine Soufiane, was cut down when he tried to charge the shooter.
Looking back, Quebecers have tried to find clues in the behavior of the shooter, Alexandre Bissonnette — his radical online postings and news reports describing him as an introvert transfixed by firearms, the French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump. But Fiset warned that such signs alone aren’t enough to predict, or stop, such an attack.
No one can force such individuals to “de-radicalize,” Fiset said, but he and others can be a reliable source of counsel, while giving those close to them “tools to recognize their patterns.”
Fiset hopes that one day he gets a call to meet with Bissonnette, and considers himself as well-placed as anyone to understand the young man.
But last month, with the sun long gone as he finally stepped out of the mosque, Fiset paused to absorb the events of that bloody night. He allowed himself a quiet moment of reflection in the same parking lot where Bissonnette fired his first shots.
“I wanted to cry,” he said. “Because when I say that could have been me, I really mean it.”