Ex-PC candidate says he's seen anti-Muslim hate in London, Ont. — and he let it slide
Jeff Bennett, who is white, says he regrets not speaking out when he encountered racism on the campaign trail
When former Progressive Conservative candidate Jeff Bennett encountered racist and anti-Muslim comments on the campaign trail in Ontario, he didn't say anything.
He's now grappling with that fact seven years later, after four members of a London, Ont., Muslim family were killed in a hit and run that police say was planned, targeted and racially motivated.
In the aftermath of the attack, Bennett says he's noticed residents and politicians of all stripes talking about how it's "unimaginable" that something like this could happen in London.
"And I thought, it's not really unimaginable," Bennett told As It Happens host Carol Off.
"I think we need to be honest in looking in the mirror and realizing that it's not always those people over there that are the source of these issues and these problems. It's in our own homes and it's in our own neighbourhoods. And that was the experience that I had, even knocking on doors."
'That's a good English name'
In 2014, Bennett was a PC candidate in London West. The election came just 10 months after his colleague Ali Chahbar, who is Muslim, lost a byelection in the same riding.
"When I started knocking on doors, people were expecting he would be the candidate again because the elections were only 10 months apart," Bennett said. "And it became evident that [in] a good number of those houses, people were pleasantly surprised."
Bennett says people made comments like, "I can tell by looking at you that Jeff Bennett is a candidate I can support," or "Bennett? That's a good English name."
He says he also encountered campaign volunteers who didn't want to work on Chahbar's campaign, but were happy to work on his. He says one person told him they "had tried to volunteer a year earlier but the campaign office felt like the Middle East."
Chahbar told CBC Toronto's Here & Now that while he did deal with some unpleasant incidents on the campaign trail, the "vast majority" of people he met were "very courteous and respectful."
"I love this city. It's a part of who I am. But I would admit, and any reasonable person would admit, that London is a work in progress, just like Toronto is a work in progress, just like any major urban centre is," he said.
"It's a duty incumbent upon all of us to take stock, take inventory and reflect in terms of what happened here in London Sunday night, the factors that gave rise to the tragic deaths."
Bennett says he didn't push back when people made inappropriate comments.
"I would say, 'Thank you for your support,' and carry on. I think that happens too much across the country," he said.
"But it's not just there. It's in basements that I grew up in in Orillia, Ont., where there's no diversity and you're watching a hockey game and somebody screams something racist and everyone just ignores it. Or, you know, Uncle Joe says something racist and the family says, 'Oh, just leave him be.'"
Grappling with the Conservative record
Bennett posted about his experiences on Facebook, he says, to encourage other white Canadians to reflect on racism and bigotry in their own communities and how they have responded to it.
In an interview with CBC's The National at a vigil in London, Mustafa Farooq of the National Council of Canadian Muslims commended Bennett for "having the courage to stand up," and encouraged other Canadians to follow suit.
"Canadians need to stand up and confront racism and Islamophobia when they see it, as they see it," he said.
But many people in Bennett's Facebook comments were quick to point out that while he was affiliated with the provincial Progressive Conservatives, the federal Conservatives were running an anti-niqab campaign and promoting a hotline for "barbaric cultural practices."
"I decided many years ago I wanted to get involved in politics. You line up the top 20 issues of the day, and I realized that I agreed with the Conservatives on 10, the Liberals on six and the NDP on four. I'm not a social conservative by any stretch of the imagination, but when it's 10, six and four, what do you do? Like, who do you run for? And I had to go with the 10," he said.
"But the more I was involved, the more I came to realize that the Conservative Party, [and] all the parties, need to take a hard look in the mirror and how they're approaching things."
Asked if he still considers himself a Conservative today, Bennett said he's not affiliated with any political party.
"A good friend of mine is running for the Liberal Party here in London, and she asked me recently if I would consider getting involved again. And I said, 'Politics needs another straight, white, middle-aged guy like me, like it needs a hole in the head.'"
Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The National and CBC Toronto. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong.