Walking buddy service sparked by desire to support minority groups across Canada
"We don't care if you're polka dot, if you want to get involved, we'd love to have you involved'
An Ontario man and some like-minded Canadians have taken it upon themselves to start a grassroots walking buddy service.
It's aimed at supporting Muslims, other minority groups and anyone feeling unsafe going out for a walk across the country in the wake of the tragic death of the Afzaal family in London, Ont.
On the evening of June 6, while out for a walk, three generations of the Afzaal family were struck and killed by a 20-year-old driver.
Police believe they were targeted because of their Muslim faith.
Torontonian Sulemaan Ahmed, a Muslim himself, says while out for a walk with his mom just days after, he couldn't help but wonder if she was safe.
"My parents have been in Canada for five decades ... and now my parents, even in their own neighbourhood ... are afraid to go for a walk."
He says he found that unacceptable.
Ahmed logged on to Twitter and says he saw a CBC Vancouver story on the fears Muslims were feeling while walking alone or with loved ones in the wake of the tragedy.
He says his mother's own fear and watching the CBC story led to an idea: a nationwide walking buddy service.
"I figured we gotta do something. [A group of friends and I] just decided ... can we launch something that allows people to walk with someone in their neighbourhood so they don't feel afraid?"
He says the idea just took off.
"The tweet blew up and all of a sudden all of these people were like, we want to help. At least 70-100 people direct messaged me on Twitter and said I want to get involved," he said.
Thinking of a walking buddy service for our respected elders. Many are stuck at home due to Covid-19 & now afraid to go out. Whatever they are - Black, Muslim, Sikh, Jewish, Indigenous, Asian - they are 🇨🇦 & we’ll help them. Start small & scale. Want in? DM me. <a href="https://t.co/2sJWY4ZEzE">https://t.co/2sJWY4ZEzE</a>—@sulemaan
The offers came flooding in from Winnipeg, Surrey, Charlottetown, Montreal and elsewhere.
"I think that bridges things. If we're having conversations between Canadians, regardless of their race, religion, colour, creed, sexual orientation, preference, that creates more bonds and people start to understand their neighbours a bit better."
'We don't care if you're polka dot'
Ahmed has taken on the project with the help of others from across the country, including Next Door, an app that brings neighbourhoods together.
Ahmed says security checks will be in place to ensure walking partners are safe and the group is currently working out whether it will be through RCMP background checks or through systems already in place on the Next Door app.
"We had some people message us and say I'm white, does that matter? We're like, no, we don't care if you're polka dot. if you want to get involved, we'd love to have you involved."
Social activist Bernie Farber, the chair of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network and a former CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress, says the program strikes him as "brilliant."
"At a time when fear and darkness seem to be all around, this is a ray of light."
Vancouverite Manjit Chand was one of the people who saw Ahmed's tweet.
"It really struck a chord and I thought if I can help make it feel safer for someone to walk and also get to know someone new, maybe in my neighbourhood ... I'd really want to spend some time doing that," Chand said.
She'll soon be what Ahmed is dubbing a Companion Champion, one of the volunteers who will walk with someone from their neighbourhood.
"It's a tribute to the [Afzaal] family, but it's also a tribute to all of my neighbours who are of Asian heritage who felt unsafe in the past year. It really is for anyone who feels unsafe," she said.
For couple Megan MacKinnon and Jeremy MacFadyen from Charlottetown, P.E.I, a similar story.
"Isn't that kind of part of being Canadian? ... our society is literally made of, for the most part, people who immigrated here ... nobody should feel afraid in their own community, that just isn't right," MacKinnon said.
They say their decision to be Companion Champions reflects their desire to let Canadians of all beliefs, colours and backgrounds know they belong.
"The fact that people don't feel safe walking in their own neighbourhood sickens me and we wanted to do what we can to change that," MacFadyen said.
Ahmed says the intention is for the Companion Champion service to run through the summer and then reassess.
"Even if we just end up helping one person, that's worth it."
The program is currently accepting registrations and the walking is set to begin in the coming weeks.