LONDON, Ont. — Racism believed to have fuelled the brutal killing of four members of a Muslim family exist in the community and unless it is dismantled, Muslim Canadians won't feel safe, local leaders said Wednesday.
No one should pretend that the horrific attack was either "unthinkable or isolated," said Javeed Sukhera, chairman of the London Police Services Board.
Sukhera said he and the board were subjected to racist attacks whenever they made efforts to address racism.
"I've been an outspoken individual and I've experienced the backlash for that," said Sukhera, who is a Muslim. "I think it's important for Canadians to know that when you speak up, people do encounter hatred ... sometimes it's actually much more vile."
Sukhera said he's heard from the Muslim community that they live in fear.
"We have heard from our brothers and sisters of the Muslim faith that they have and continue to face hate and attacks, especially when openly expressing their faith," he said. " We cannot deny nor turn away from this truth."
He said the board will continue its work to address Islamophobia, which police believe motivated the attack on Sunday, when a man driving a black Dodge Ram smashed into a family on a sidewalk, killing three adults and a teen and sending a child to hospital.
Relatives have identified the victims as Salman Afzaal, 46, his wife Madiha Salman, 44, daughter Yumna Salman, 15, and her 74-year-old grandmother. The couple’s nine-year-old boy, Fayez, was seriously injured.
London Mayor Ed Holder said the shock of the attack is compounded by the fact that the Muslim community is so prominent and "integral" to the city, noting that Arabic is the most spoken language there after English.
"Our Muslim and Arabic communities are very much mainstream in the city -- they're business leaders, political leaders, people that show acts of compassion and kindness to others irrespective of their race or culture," he said.
Aarij Anwer, imam of the London Muslim Mosque that the victims attended, said the Muslim community dates back to the 1950s, with generations raised in the city since.
“This is a deeply rooted community,” he said. “Often you find here that the family has a grandfather who immigrated to London. And then the next two generations were born and raised in this mosque. They went to school here."
Anwer said those deep roots make it that much harder to cope with the attack.
“For us, this is an even greater shock to our system, because this has been our home for generations,” he said.
For some, the initial shock turned into a moment of reflection about their city and their own encounters with racism.
Jeff Bennett said he witnessed anti-Muslim racism when he ran for the Progressive Conservative party in the 2014 election in the riding where the attack took place. The party's previous candidate, Ali Chabhar, is Muslim.
Some voters were happy to see Bennett was a white man - and told him so when he knocked on their doors.
At the time, he brushed it off as ignorance. But he said the attack on Sunday made him pause and think about those experiences and he was filled with regret.
"It's hard to look at yourself and admit that, 'Yeah, I most definitely ignored it when it's been brought up in front of me' and that's what I feel bad about," he said.
Bennett said Canadians need to own up to systemic racism and address it immediately, but acknowledges that will be difficult for many.
"We haven't been honest with ourselves, and horrific things have happened in the history of Canada, and horrific things continue to happen," he said. "And our past needs close examination. But nobody's really willing to do that work or to examine it to that degree, because nobody wants to feel like they play a role in it."
- with files from Paola Loriggio.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 9, 2021.
Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press