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Survivor Aymen Derbali sets out to combat hate, 2 years after Quebec City mosque shooting

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Aymen Derbali swivels his wheelchair toward the large windows of his new living room, sparsely furnished with ornate rugs.

He bows his head and closes his eyes, taking a moment for his afternoon prayer, before talking about the turning point in his life — moving into a new home with his family last August, after being apart for nearly 18 months.

« I was able to go back to my home and have a normal life, like before the tragedy, » he said.

Derbali, a father of three, nearly avoided the attack that killed six people and seriously wounded him and four others at Quebec City’s Islamic Cultural Centre on Jan. 29, 2017.

He was debating whether to go his local mosque that evening, but eventually told his wife he was going, and would be home in time to put their eldest son to bed.

Derbali was in his usual corner at the back of the room, when he saw the gunman come in and raise his weapon toward him.

He was hit with seven bullets, including one that struck his spinal cord. In a second, the life he’d set out for himself and his family made an abrupt turn.

Derbali regularly attends the mosque where he was shot on Jan. 29, 2017. (Julia Page/CBC)

Derbali was in a coma for the next two months. His doctors feared he’d lost most of his cerebral capacities, after surviving four heart attacks.

When he woke up, he was told he’d never walk again.

But « being able to recognize my children and my wife, for the rest of my life, that was the main thing for me, » he said.

His coma was especially hard on his then-eight-year-old son, Ayoub, who was convinced his father was dead.

« He was very upset. So when he saw me back at my home he was very, very happy. »

The wide hallways of his new home allow Derbali to move around easily. (Julia Page/CBC)

Outpouring of support

The soft-spoken 42-year-old can now move freely around the house, purchased thanks to a $400,000 fundraising campaign.

People from around the world answered the call from Dawanet, a Muslim charity, to help his family move out of their Sainte-Foy apartment — which was too cramped and ill-equipped for Derbali’s needs.

The wide hallways and door frames in the new home allow him to move around during the day, from his small desk in his bedroom to the sitting room where he can watch television with his children.

He can also watch them play soccer in the backyard in the summer.

« This solidarity has encouraged me to be more positive, and this is the beautiful thing, » he said.

Grateful for the wave of support he’s received, Derbali refuses to dwell on the act of violence he fell victim to that night. « There is much more goodness than evil on this planet, » Derbali said.

Derbali smiles at his two youngest children, Maryem, 2, and Youssouf, 6. (Submitted by Aymen Derbali)

His home still needs a few more modifications to make it fully adapted to his needs, including an adapted shower and an elevated platform to allow him to go straight to the garage from the kitchen.

But he is able to help in planning all this, now that he can type on his keyboard with two fingers and answer calls on his cellphone, lessening the burden he felt he put on his family, just 12 months before.

« I can plan the work around the house, pay the bills and help my son with his homework. »

He is also there every afternoon to greet his children when they return from school, just a few blocks away.

Second life

Derbali has started sending out resumés  in hope of landing a part-time job, to supplement the income provided by the government’s compensation for victims of crimes.

But his daily routine still takes up a lot of his time. He requires three hours of home care every day, and the bullets that exploded inside his body cause him constant pain.

Nonetheless, he is committed to the humanitarian work he began long before the shooting.

Derbali, who worked as an IT specialist, is now able to type on his computer and hopes to go back to work part-time. (Julia Page/CBC)

He continues to be involved in an orphanage he helped set up in Bolivia and now wants to do more within Quebec City, to foster dialogue between groups that may have been on separate paths for too long.

« We woke up after this tragedy and said ‘We have to be more open to all the communities,' » he said.

He is encouraging Muslim youth to get involved and volunteer for homeless shelters, for example.

« In this way we can fight hate crimes and we can fight ignorance. This is the most important thing, to have concrete actions, » he said.

Derbali has also started giving conferences in high schools to show young men and women the mark hatred left in his life, convinced these face-to-face meetings will leave a much deeper impact than any government initiative.

Derbali sits in the dining room of the new home his family was able to purchase thanks to a fundraising campaign that netted more than $400,000. (Julia Page/CBC)

« You know if we have an open-minded teenager, we don’t have to be afraid for his future. »

The two-year anniversary will be an important milestone for Derbali. So will knowing the fate that awaits the young man he crossed paths with in his place of worship, two years ago.

Convicted gunman Alexandre Bissonette will be sentenced just days after the anniversary, on Feb. 8, at the Quebec City courthouse.

Derbali says that will be another chance to turn the page and focus on the good he has seen emerge from that dark night.

« It’s my second life that is starting. »

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‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal

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MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Anglais

Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Anglais

Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise

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Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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