When he heard the news that a local family had been killed on the streets of his city, Dr. Javeed Sukhera felt an immediate sense of unease.
The London child and adolescent psychiatrist couldn’t shake the worry that he knew the family, that there was more to this tragedy.
His fears were soon confirmed.
Because of his role as the chair of the London Police Service Board, Sukhera learned before it was public that Madiha Salman, her husband Salman Afzaal, their 15-year-old daughter Yumna, and Afzaal’s mother Talat Afzaal were killed in what police are calling a hate-motivated, Islamophobic attack. Only nine-year-old Fayez survived.
Sukhera cancelled his appointments and rushed home, wanting to help his children, ages 10 and 12, process the deaths of family friends, people with “hearts of gold” who were among the first they’d gotten to know when Sukhera’s family moved to London.
In the days since, Sukhera has not only been processing personal grief. He’s had to confront the very real, deadly threat posed by racism and Islamophobia, in London and in communities across Canada. It’s hate he’s experienced all too often, especially since he became police board chair.
In an interview this week, Sukhera described how in the year since becoming chair he’s been the target of “numerous hate-filled messages.” In a statement on behalf of the board, he decried the “vitriol and slurs” directed at himself and another Muslim board chair, discrimination that often comes after the board acknowledges systemic discrimination.
“I don’t want to ever centre my own experience. But I think it’s important for people to know that being a Muslim in this community — and other communities in Canada — brings experiences of hatred,” Sukhera said.
“It’s really important, from my perspective, for Canadians to not look away right now,” he said. “To really take a long, hard look in the mirror.”
London police have revealed little about what evidence led them to call Sunday’s attack a “premeditated act motivated by hate.” Earlier in the week, investigators said Nathaniel Veltman — charged with four counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder — had no known membership in any specific hate group.
Southwestern Ontario — Veltman lived in London and grew-up in nearby Strathroy, Ont. — has a long history of being a central organizing node for white supremacist and neo-Nazi gangs and would-be charismatic leaders.
“It has been the case —for not just this wave, but even in the 90s and early 2000s when there was another uptick in (far-right) activity — a lot of it was concentrated in that part of the province, sort of from the GTA west. The Tri-Cities, Hamilton even, London, Windsor, that sort of corridor down there,” said Barbara Perry, the head of Ontario Tech University’s Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism.
“Definitely something going on down there.”
“Toronto straight through to Windsor,” agreed Bernie Farber, the head of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network and an activist who has fought against racism for more than four decades.
Farber noted that such hatred is almost always focused on Jewish Canadians, Black Canadians, Indigenous people and Muslim Canadians.
“As much as I know Mayor (Ed) Holder and others would like to think of London as a nice, peaceful place, it has a significantly, lengthy history of pockets of white supremacy that, I think, date back to post-WWII. And maybe before.”
In the early ’90s, the Toronto-based Heritage Front held open meetings of hundreds of like-minded people, sprouting chapters across the country, publishing propaganda and even running its own telephone hotline with daily commentary for white supremacists.
The Front’s leader, Wolfgang Droege, would later fall out of racist organizing, and into cigarette and drug smuggling, and end up face-down in his Scarborough apartment, shot dead.
But at the height of the Front’s power in the ’90s, racists and skinheads were operating very much in the open — in London, in Kitchener-Waterloo, in Hamilton and in Toronto, with some dreaming of mainstream credibility. Droege, himself, was a member of the Reform Party until he was booted for his ties to racist organizations.
The Northern Alliance. Hammerskins. The Canadian Association for the Freedom of Expression. Straight Pride Incorporated. The Tri-City Skins. The Canadian Ethnic Cleansing Team. Blood and Honour. The Canadian Heritage Alliance.
The list goes on.
Ontario has been a hotbed of activity each time white supremacist activity spikes in what Perry calls “waves.”
In each of those “waves,” news reports somewhat ironically note the media isn’t paying much attention to these groups — or the danger they represent.
There is little doubt that Canada is experiencing one such wave today. Perry estimated roughly 300 far-right extremist groups are operating in Canada — ranging from laughable to extremely dangerous, as has often been the case with the far-right movement.
It’s something Matthew Green has experienced — directly — most of his life. As a 12-year old boy, the Hamilton Centre MP and former city councillor, who is Black, was confronted by two neo-Nazis while walking with his older brother through Jackson Square mall.
“I can remember it clear as day,” Green told the Star in an interview.
“At the time I was wearing kind of ’90s hip hop clothing, and I had two grown men following me and, you know, calling me a n—–.”
“And my brother intervened, he was a couple years older. And they basically jumped him in the mall … I just remember the, the anger at the skinheads, but also at the people who were standing around watching as two grown men assaulted a teenage boy and a 12-year old.”
Green said that was the moment where he knew that, when it came to racism, he had to decide whether it was fight or flight — if that was even a real choice. He chose fight.
He stressed this isn’t just a southwestern Ontario problem, nor is it only a recent phenomenon. White supremacy exists across Canada, Green said —from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia to Kamloops, British Columbia and beyond — and its roots are deep.
“We had the Ku Klux Klan in open rallies in the 1920s. Here. in Hamilton … literally on the street in James Street, North parading,” Green said.
“White supremacy is as old as Canada.”
It took time, but that has sunk in for Jeff Bennett. The former London Progressive Conservative candidate penned a viral Facebook post in the wake of the London attack — it took place roughly a kilometre from his house — saying he had come “face to face with anti-Muslim attitudes in London” on the campaign trail in 2014.
“We must take stock of the part we play. No more saying ‘Oh grandpa is not really racist. He was just raised differently’. Well that ‘differently’ is not okay,” Bennett wrote.
“Canada has a racist, unacceptable history. It’s time we call it out, own it and take action.”
Speaking to the Star Friday, Bennett reflected on growing up in Orillia, Ont. and summering in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia — not encountering a person of a different colour or creed until meeting one Black student in high school.
“It’s a huge factor. It’s more of a factor in Canada than it is in the United States,” Bennett said.
Canada major problem, he said, is “lack of exposure, lack of empathy, and lack of understanding about what other people’s lived experience might be. And it’s because 80 per cent of people who are in position of leadership in this country come from not very diverse backgrounds.”
About 20 minutes outside London, in a community flanked by farmland, is a leafy residential street on the west edge of Strathroy. Up a small laneway marked with a “no trespassing” sign is where Veltman, the eldest son of six, grew up.
On Wednesday, at nearby Strathroy District Collegiate Institute, where Veltman attended high school, an electronic sign read: “215 Lives Lost, Every Child Matters.” Its flags were at half-mast.
It was an acknowledgment of another part of Canada’s history of racism, brought once again to the fore with the discovery of the remains of 215 children in an unmarked grave in British Columbia, on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
In the wake Sunday’s attack in London, there has been a refrain of “this is not who we are” — this is not London, this is not Ontario, this is not Canada.
“I think we need to recognize that we have a culture of denialism and avoidance,” said Sukhera. “And the human cost of it is too great to continue.”