This Facebook Group is Making Toronto Safer For Everyone

After a woman in a hijab was attacked, Kanwar Anit Singh Saini and Mita Hans saw an opportunity to take positive action. Through a Facebook group called BuddyUpTO, they’re making a difference on the streets of Toronto.

Kanwar Anit Singh Saini and Mita Hans started BuddyUpTO Photo: Brooke Wedlock

Great Canadians: Kanwar Anit Singh Saini & Mita Hans of BuddyUpTO

In November 2015, soon after a series of coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris, a woman in a hijab was assaulted and robbed by two men outside an elementary school in a north Toronto neighbourhood. The hate crime shocked many, but its vicious nature was familiar to speech-language pathologist and artist Kanwar Anit Singh Saini, 35, who says, “I’ve faced my fair share of violence as a gay man in a turban.”

The next day, he posted a message on his Facebook page offering to run errands with people who’d felt the bull’s eye on their back grow overnight: “If anyone needs a buddy… hijabi, turbaned or otherwise.”

Within moments of reading Saini’s status, his friend Mita Hans, a 50-year-old social services worker and also a Sikh, got a call from her sister in Mississauga, Ont., who would be accompanying their turbaned father to the bank because the family worried for his safety. Hans wondered how many others were feeling similarly vulnerable.

Inspired by Saini, she created BuddyUpTO, a Facebook group that links people who feel unsafe venturing out alone with volunteers who join them on their day-to-day tasks. That first night, it was just Hans, Saini and a couple of friends. Within 12 hours, BuddyUpTO had grown to 50 members.

“By the end of the week, the number was 500, then it was 1,000,” Hans recalls. The tally continued to climb as news of the group spread and new members began announcing their locations and availability. Some messaged each other directly to link up, while others reached out to Hans to be paired.

BuddyUpTO was conceived as a response to a hate crime, but it was never intended to combat Islamophobia specifically. Hans and Saini knew that while those wearing religious garb are often targeted first, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people and sex workers are also regularly at risk of being harmed. The BuddyUpTO network is willing to tackle all kinds of situations: one young member reached out because her former abuser had begun taking her bus route to university. Another woman requested a ride to a railway station after a visit to the hospital and was matched with musician Suzy Richter.

“She was attending a support group,” says Richter, 53. “We chatted, but we never spoke about why she was fearful of taking public transit alone. I remember thinking, I don’t need to know why. It wasn’t just an opportunity for someone to get a ride from me—it was an opportunity for me to do something decent.”

Activity in BuddyUpTO ebbs and flows, but Hans says there’s always a surge in membership when events lead people to feel targeted. In February 2016, the group saw a spike in signups around the time of a rally for missing and murdered Indigenous women; during Pride, members link up to travel from event to event. On January 30 of this year, after a shooting in a Quebec City mosque, one member posted, “To all my brothers and sisters out there who feel unsafe, I will stand by you!”

“People wear those shirts that say ‘Home Is Toronto,’ but in reality, making Toronto inclusive and having people feel supported is up to all of us,” says Saini. “It’s not just home because we live here.”

Hans, who’s lived in Toronto since she was a young child, still remembers the racist gangs that hung around local movie theatres showing Indian films in the 1970s. Her family would travel as a group to avoid being attacked in the parking lots. “We went through this progression of making the neighbourhood safe,” she says. And that’s exactly what BuddyUpTO intends to keep doing.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada