Police say a 20-year-old London, Ont., man deliberately struck down five members of a Muslim family with his truck in a hate-motivated act of mass murder, an attack that prompted an outpouring of grief and calls for the accused to face terrorism charges.
The family of five had been out for an evening walk, and were waiting to cross the street when police say the truck mounted the curb and struck them.
Four of the family members – a 74-year-old woman, a 46-year-old man, a 44-year-old woman and a 15- year-old girl – died on Sunday evening. The lone survivor, a nine-year-old boy, remains in hospital. Police did not release the names of the victims citing the family’s request for privacy. The Globe and Mail has not been able to confirm their identities.
Relatives of the family posted an official statement late Monday to a fundraising website.
That statement, confirmed by family friend Saboor Khan, was signed by the Afzaal family. It says that the victims of the attack “were always there giving and participating in spreading goodness.”
The statement adds that God “gave Salman [the father] Madiha [the mother] Yumna [the daughter] and Yumna’s grandmother the ultimate rank of a shaheed [martyr] while Fayez [the son] is on the road to recovery from serious injuries.”
The statement called upon Canadians and “the highest levels in our governments” to take a stand against the extremism that allegedly motivated the attack.
Minutes after the collision, Nathaniel Veltman was arrested after a police chase, in a shopping mall parking lot seven kilometres away. He faces four charges of first-degree murder and one of attempted murder. Authorities say they are weighing whether to pursue terrorism charges.
“We believe that this was an intentional act and that the victims of this horrific incident were targeted because of their Islamic faith,” London Police Chief Steve Williams said at a news conference on Monday. “All of the victims in this matter are members of the same family.”
At the news conference, London Detective-Superintendent Paul Waight declined to discuss what the accused said to police after his arrest, but he noted that he “was wearing a vest that appeared to be like body armour.”
“So far, we don’t know of his membership in any specific hate group,” Det.-Supt. Waight said.
He added that there is no indication others were involved, and that detectives with the RCMP have reached out to discuss whether authorities can lay “potential terrorism charges” under federal laws. No such allegations have been made so far.
Members of London’s Muslim community describe the slain family members as a close-knit group of model Canadians with roots in Pakistan. They say the older woman was the grandmother in the family, that the two adults in their 40s were husband and wife, and the 15-year-old was their daughter. The boy is their son.
“The wife, she was in the last month of basically her PhD,” said Saboor Khan. “The husband had worked extremely hard. The children they were top students in their school.”
Groups of mourners came to lay flowers at the intersection on Monday. Some lingered for a few moments in silence, absorbing the weight of the tragedy.
Bilal Rahhal, the chairman of the London Muslim Mosque, is planning a large vigil for Tuesday evening. “They were just going for an evening walk. It was nice, so they were just walking. As far as we know, they were not going anywhere, they were walking around.”
He added that the nine-year-old is in critical condition in hospital, but expected to recover. An uncle is flying in from abroad to help take care of him, he said.
Principal Asad Choudhary held an online town hall on Monday evening for the parents and children of his London Islamic School, where the boy is in Grade 3 and the older sister graduated from Grade 8 last year.
“We wanted everyone to understand that our deepest condolences and our greatest regrets go towards what happened last night,” Mr. Choudhary said during the Zoom session, which was almost immediately hit by trolls posting hundreds of obscene and hateful comments.
Government authorities across North America and Europe have increasingly warned about the prospect of extremist violence motivated by racism, gender hatred or anti-authority causes. In Canada, a caretaker at a Toronto mosque was killed in a knife attack last September that led police to charge a man with first-degree murder. In the aftermath, members of the city’s Muslim community called for tougher hate crime laws and for terrorism prosecutions against such suspects.
Islamic groups and anti-racism organizations repeated these calls after Sunday’s attack. “We’re calling for it to be considered an act of terror. Action needs to happen from the federal government,” said Mustafa Farooq, who heads the National Council of Canadian Muslims.
“If the point of terrorism is to have people live in fear, to feel unsafe and to not feel like they belong – then this is definitely terrorism,” said Mohammed Hashim, executive director of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation.
Later this year, the Supreme Court of Canada will weigh in on the proper sentence for a Quebec City man who is to serve at least 25 years in prison for his role in massacring six Muslims in a mosque in 2017.
Nawaz Tahir, a London lawyer, said Sunday’s incident will join the 2017 and 2020 attacks in the minds of Muslims across Canada. “We simply cannot add another date,” he said. “We must stamp out Islamophobia.”
In April, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service released a report that said “the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated xenophobic and anti-authority narratives.” Such ideologically motivated extremism, CSIS said, is a growing threat. “Since 2014, Canadians motivated in whole or in part by their extremist ideological views have killed 21 people and wounded 40 others on Canadian soil – more than religiously motivated violent extremism (RMVE) or politically motivated violent extremism.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on social media he was horrified by the news and expressed solidarity with relatives of those terrorized by the “act of hatred,” and sympathy for the injured child. “To the Muslim community in London and to Muslims across the country, know that we stand with you,” Mr. Trudeau said. “Islamophobia has no place in any of our communities. This hate is insidious and despicable, and it must stop.”
In the past, Canadian police have tended not to lay terrorism charges in mass murder cases. Murder already carries the toughest penalties in the Criminal Code. First-degree murder brings an automatic sentence of life in prison, with no chance at full parole for 25 years.
In the 2017 Quebec City mosque shooting, prosecutors pursued only first-degree murder charges against the suspect. Sunday’s attack is bringing up painful memories among those who mourned the six men who were gunned down while worshipping at the Centre Culturel Islamique du Québec.
Immediate thoughts went to the injured boy in hospital and other family and community members, said Boufeldja Benabdallah, co-founder and spokesperson for the mosque. The road to recovery from such events is long, he added. “We still have people living with a lot of distress.”
Mr. Benabdallah said his community and many others in Quebec City have worked very hard to build bridges, but they still encounter people who believe myths about Muslims, and are filled with hatred.
“We really have to do something about this, but I don’t know what that is,” Mr. Benabdallah said. “We have seen here where we reach out to the community, where the community has really opened to us, where a lot of myths have broken down, that you can still have people with hate in their hearts.”
Governments and the courts have taken some steps to respond to the heightened risks of extremist violence in Canada.
In February, the federal government designated the Proud Boys as a banned terrorist group, saying it amounts to a “neo-fascist organization that engages in political violence.”
In March, a 28-year-old man was convicted on 10 charges of first-degree murder in the 2018 Toronto van attack. Court testimony in that case often highlighted the man’s ties to an online misogynistic community known as the “involuntary celibates” or “incel” movement.
With reports from Serena Marotta, Les Perreaux, Mike Hager, Sean Fine, Molly Hayes and The Canadian Press
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