After Muslim family’s killing, a reckoning for Canada

Geoff Robins/The Canadian Press/AP
Young women carry signs during an anti-Islamophobia march June 11, 2021, after four members of a Muslim family were killed on June 6 in what police called a hate crime, in London, Ontario.

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The killing of four members of the Afzaal family in London, Ontario, on June 6, when a young man ran them over with his truck because they were Muslim, has stirred Canadians to take a hard look at Islamophobia in their midst.

Over the weekend, thousands took to the streets to commemorate the family and take a stand against the hate that took their lives. “The display of support has been overwhelming at the grassroots,” says Munir El-Kassem, imam of the Islamic Centre of Southwest Ontario. “It’s getting to the point where the people say, ‘Enough is enough.’”

Why We Wrote This

The killing of a Muslim family in a hit-and-run incident is forcing Canada to face up to its darker side and take steps to eradicate Islamophobia.

Javeed Sukhera, chair of the London Police Services Board, says the narrative of Canada as a multicultural country of welcome is such a comfortable one for Canadians that it makes it hard to see the hate below the surface.

“This whole year for me has been a lot of cycling between hope and despair,” he says. “I hope this will be a reckoning, a chance to look in the mirror and stop the denialism and avoidance. But I also know that Canada is going to start this a couple of steps behind where we needed to be in the first place.”

Wax from burned-down candles stamps the curbside in London, Ontario. Piles of bouquets overflow onto the pavement and into the road where a young man driving a black Dodge Ram appeared to intentionally run over a family out for an evening stroll last Sunday. He targeted them because they were Muslim.

Now four are dead: two parents, Salman Afzaal and Madiha Salman; their 15-year-old daughter, Yumna Salman; and the grandmother, Talat Afzaal. Only their son, 9-year-old Fayez, survived. And at the intersection where they stood waiting their turn to cross the street, lifelong Londoner Merland Brady shakes her head. “This shouldn’t have happened,” she says to no one in particular, as a constant stream of neighbors lays down more flowers.

“I never knew Islamophobia even existed,” says Ms. Brady, a retired educational assistant in the public school system here. In her career she was surrounded by the positive narratives around Muslim integration in her job – many students were Syrian refugees who used to thank the school for their support – without spending the time, she realizes now, to reflect on the darker currents underneath that have now played out so tragically.

Why We Wrote This

The killing of a Muslim family in a hit-and-run incident is forcing Canada to face up to its darker side and take steps to eradicate Islamophobia.

“I don’t know if it was that I never witnessed it, or that I purposely turned a blind eye. But to think a family goes out for a walk and comes back dead. This has opened my eyes.”

Hers is part of a reckoning underway across Canada as the country mourns the death of the Afzaal family. It comes just over a week after the remains of 215 Indigenous children were found near a former residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia. It comes just over a year after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, opened a new chapter on the persistent racism that Black Canadians face. And it comes amid the pandemic that has seen a surge in hate crimes against Asians in particular.

Over the weekend, thousands took to the streets to commemorate the family and take a stand against the Islamophobia that took their lives. “The display of support has been overwhelming at the grassroots,” says Munir El-Kassem, imam of the Islamic Centre of Southwest Ontario. “It’s getting to the point where the people say, ‘Enough is enough.’”

Sara Miller Llana/The Christian Science Monitor
Munir El-Kassem, an imam in London, Ontario, stands in front of the London Muslim Mosque, June 13, 2021, a week after a Muslim family was killed while they were on a Sunday evening walk.

Now leaders are pushing for politicians to match the public mood. In the past week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and party leaders arrived in London, forcefully condemning Islamophobia. Responding to an open letter by the National Council of Canadian Muslims and co-signed by over 150 organizations, the House of Commons on Friday unanimously passed a resolution calling for an emergency summit on Islamophobia by the end of next month. 

Anti-hate advocates are demanding that barriers to reporting incidents of hate – two-thirds of which aren’t reported, according to Statistics Canada – are removed, that anti-racism training in schools is mandated, and that online hate is monitored and punished. They are calling for political commitment to root out “institutional” Islamophobia, seen in heavy-handed surveillance and laws like Quebec’s Bill 21, which bans some public service employers in authority positions, like teachers, from wearing religious symbols. In practical application, it almost solely targets Muslim women over headscarves.

“The types of Islamophobic views that would drive someone to mow down Muslims in the street aren’t just the purview of the right-wing extreme, but are embedded, in many ways, in our state institutions and practices,” says Azeezah Kanji, a legal academic whose research focuses on Islamophobia in Canada. “It’s like trying to mop the floor while there’s a hole in the ceiling through which water continues to pour.”

On Monday morning, terrorism charges were laid against Nathaniel Veltman, the suspect charged with the murder of the family. 

Many are skeptical that the current political resolve will persist, just as the impetus for change fizzled out after the 2017 Quebec City mosque shooting, where six worshippers were murdered. Yet there are some signs of change this time. Immediately following that shooting, a nonbinding motion to condemn Islamophobia turned into a divisive debate over the meaning of the word, and it was opposed by many Conservative lawmakers – many of whom have easily condemned Islamophobia today.

Jeff Bennett ran for the Ontario Progressive Conservative (PC) Party in 2014 in London. This week, after he passed the intersection where the killing happened, he penned a Facebook post in a wave of anguish. “This terrorist may have been alone in that truck on that day, but he was not acting alone. He was raised in a racist city that pretends it isn’t.”

The post went viral. In an interview later, he says he witnessed racist attitudes as a political candidate in a city whose demographics – largely white but with a multiethnic minority, including many Muslims – make it so “average” that London serves as a test market. Back then, he says he didn’t speak out against it because it was more convenient not to. He asks himself where he was in 2017 after the Quebec shooting, which led to anti-Islam protests including in London. 

Sara Miller Llana/The Christian Science Monitor
The Robinson family brings a bouquet of flowers to place at the spot where the Afzaal family was run over by a 20-year-old because of their faith last Sunday in London, Ontario, June 13, 2021.

“There are people out there saying, ‘This is horrible what happened, we need to stop racism,’” he says. “But they never admit to their own role in it. And I’m saying, ‘I’m included in systemic racism, and so are you. And you need to look in the mirror.’”

A current candidate for the Ontario PC Party in the next provincial election, Paul Paolatto, “took exception” to Mr. Bennett’s words, “or anyone who, in response to this heinous act of terror, characterizes the entire city of #LdnOnt, my city, as a racist city” in a tweet that faced so much backlash he was compelled to apologize via Twitter Sunday.

Javeed Sukhera, chair of the London Police Services Board, who knew the Afzaal family and remembers above all that they were always smiling, says the narrative of a multicultural country of welcome is such a comfortable one for Canadians that it makes it hard to see the hate below the surface.

“This whole year for me has been a lot of cycling between hope and despair. We all watched George Floyd’s murder. We asked ourselves, what is it going to take? Then we saw the graves in Kamloops, and we asked, what is it going to take?” he says. “I hope this will be a reckoning, a chance to look in the mirror and stop the denialism and avoidance. But I also know that Canada is going to start this a couple of steps behind where we needed to be in the first place.”

And yet the continued show of support has boosted morale in the tough days and weeks ahead as the Muslim community, and many other Canadians at their side, demand change.

On Sunday, green and purple ribbons flutter across the city. Faith communities, local businesses, and schools have erected signs of support for the family. And the corner where it all happened, even a week later, is never solitary.

“The family was walking the streets when they were brutally murdered. And now we’re going to take the streets back. We’re not going to be terrorized by what this man did. We’re not going to be defined by that. We’re not going to cower in fear. The symbolism of that is so massive,” says Aarij Anwer, imam at the London Muslim Mosque, where the Afzaals were active members. It “is an expression of the love of the people, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. So truly, love does conquer hate. We just need to make sure that that continues.”

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