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‘A racist city that pretends it isn’t’: London, Ont. attack didn’t happen in vacuum, residents say

Written by on June 8, 2021

Five members of a Muslim family in London, Ont., went out for a walk on Sunday night. Before the day was done, four of them had lost their lives in what police described as a targeted hate crime.

The only survivor — a nine-year-old boy — was seriously injured.

As Canadians across the country express their shock, horror and grief, the news was underpinned by a dark reality: Islamophobia and hate crimes are on the rise, according to both the statistics and the lived experiences of those in the community.

“We think about this all the time,” said Ali Chahbar, a lawyer living in London.

“Every time I walk into a mosque on Friday, I’d be lying to you if I didn’t think about New Zealand, the mosque shooting there. I would be lying to you if I didn’t think about the Quebec City shooting, and the fact that there’s a possibility that you may walk in, but be carried out.”

Read more: ‘This is a terrorist attack’: Trudeau condemns tragedy in London, Ont. that left 4 dead

The latest Statistics Canada data from 2019 shows a nine per cent increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes compared to the previous year. The Toronto police also tweeted on Tuesday that they’ve seen a 50 per cent increase in hate crimes in the last year alone.Click to play video: '“This is our Canada:” Jagmeet Singh speaks out after Muslim family killed, injured in London, Ont. attack' 8:12 “This is our Canada:” Jagmeet Singh speaks out after Muslim family killed, injured in London, Ont. attack “This is our Canada:” Jagmeet Singh speaks out after Muslim family killed, injured in London, Ont. attack

Hadil Abdallah lives minutes away from where the attack took place. She said the violent act made her afraid to leave the house.

“The next day, I thought, ‘you know what, I’m not going out with my son,’ because I was afraid,” Abdallah said.

But, she said, she quickly reassured herself that London “is always a safe place.”

“People love each other. People help each other. So, no, I will be out and I will be safe. And this will never happen again, I’m sure,” Abdallah said.Click to play video: 'Outpouring of grief in London, Ont. for Muslim victims killed in vehicle attack' 3:06 Outpouring of grief in London, Ont. for Muslim victims killed in vehicle attack Outpouring of grief in London, Ont. for Muslim victims killed in vehicle attack

But Abdallah wasn’t the only Muslim resident who initially felt nervous about leaving her home.

Reyhana Patel works with the non-government organization Islamic Relief Canada. She said she heard similar comments from many others living in London.

“We have a huge supporter base in London, Ont., and I have some friends there, and they’re just like, ‘we don’t feel safe to walk, to leave our house,’” said Patel.

She added that some of her friends told their kids “not to leave the house” on Monday.

There were 2,073 hate crimes reported to police in 2017, according to Statistics Canada. Nearly 350 of those crimes were committed against Muslims, the data shows. The number of anti-Muslim hate crimes dropped to 166 incidents in 2018 before rising to 181 in 2019.

Read more: ‘Hate is still present’: Quebec City mosque co-founder reacts to London attack

London residents have felt the rising tide of hatred in their neighbourhoods in recent years, Patel said.

In 2017, Islamophobic protesters took to the city’s streets in the name of combatting what they described as issues surrounding Islam — just months after a gunman opened fire on a Quebec City mosque, killing six people.

“We’ve seen a lot of these far-right protests throughout London, Ont., over the last few years — it’s not something new,” said Patel. “We see a lot of people that come out to these protests. So it’s there.”Click to play video: 'Targeted attacks on Black Muslim women in Alberta' 2:25 Targeted attacks on Black Muslim women in Alberta Targeted attacks on Black Muslim women in Alberta – Mar 26, 2021

In another instance, posters were taped around Western University in late 2020 that read “it’s okay to be white,” Patel said, a slogan that originally emerged on an online message board with the intent of seeming harmless but provoking a strong reaction.

The saying was later adopted by neo-Nazi and far-right groups and has a history with those groups going back as far as 2001.

On Tuesday, a former PC Party candidate also spoke up about the racism he noticed when he knocked on doors in London West in 2014.

“These people who’d never met me saw nothing special in me. They were happy only that my name was English and my skin was white,” said Jeff Bennett in a Facebook post.

“The PC Party candidate in the election prior to me had been my friend Ali Chahbar. He had lost narrowly in a by-election only a year earlier … The word ‘Sharia’ was tossed around. I remember screaming at the racist idiots calling in while sitting in the parking lot of a London coffee shop.”Click to play video: 'Day of remembrance in Quebec mosque attack a first step, experts say' 3:20 Day of remembrance in Quebec mosque attack a first step, experts say Day of remembrance in Quebec mosque attack a first step, experts say – Jan 29, 2021

Bennett added that volunteers said they were happy to be on his team, because the year prior, “the campaign office felt like the Middle East.”

“Now I see people expressing shock that a racist terrorist would drive his truck into the pathway of a Muslim family going for a walk. ‘London is better than this’ they say. ‘I can’t believe this happened here’. Bulls–t,” Bennett wrote.

“I knocked on thousands of doors in the very neighbourhood this atrocity occurred. 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.”

In order to address the pervasive issue of white supremacy, Patel said it’s essential “to get to the root causes of the problem.”

“The ideology has to be tackled,” she said.

Read more: Sparks fly at London City Hall as protesters clash during anti-Islam rally

It’s an issue that’s been written about extensively by Barbara Perry, a social scientist and author on hate crimes at the University of Toronto Institute of Technology.

She said that in recent years, there have been “upwards of three hundred” active hate groups across the country. On top of the organized hate groups, she’s seen an uptick in what she calls “floaters.”

“Floaters (are) individuals who aren’t necessarily affiliated with any particular group, but are in and out of different social media platforms, in and out of different groups, and sort of cherry-picking from their ideologies to suit their needs,” Perry said.Click to play video: 'Extremists showing up at anti-mask rallies: experts' 2:08 Extremists showing up at anti-mask rallies: experts Extremists showing up at anti-mask rallies: experts – Dec 9, 2020

These individuals are consuming what they’re finding on “white supremacist, Islamophobic, neo-Nazi sites,” Perry said, “and that is informing their own view of the world.”

Patel agreed that online hate is a key part of the problem.

“People being exposed to that sort of language,” she said.

“And then, in the event that someone does decide that … they’re kind of fed up, and they want to just do something more than just spew hate online, this is what they’re going to turn to.”

And as a community reels from the loss of four lives, Patel says something must be done to address these root causes.

“We need more leadership that brings tangible change. Again, we hear all of this ‘never again, never again.’ But it never turns into something concrete,” Patel said.

“This has to be a wake-up call for the country.”

— With files from Global News’ Joe Scarpelli and Sean Boynton

From Yasuh