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Four family members who were out for a walk are dead, and a fifth in hospital, after a man drove into them deliberately – an act London police say was motivated by racist hatred. Here’s what you need to know

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London, Ont., June 8: People pray at a vigil outside the London Muslim Mosque for the victims of Sunday's deadly vehicle attack on a family of five, four of whom were killed.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

June 6′s attack on a Pakistani-Canadian family in London, Ont., was not the first time anti-Muslim hatred has erupted into violence in Canada – but community leaders and politicians hope it can be the last.

Four members of the Afzaal family, spanning three generations, are dead. A nine-year-old boy is the sole survivor. As the suspect awaits trial, his case has renewed discussions about how courts should deal with extremism and communities should stand up to racism. Here’s a primer on that debate and the facts of the case so far.

How to help: Family members of the victims have launched a page for donations along with the London Muslim Mosque, the National Council of Canadian Muslims and Islamic Relief.

The basic facts so far

How the truck attack in London, Ont., unfolded

On June 6, five family members were out for a walk on Hyde Park Road in the northwest end of London, Ont. They were waiting to cross an intersection at South Carriage Road at 8:40 p.m. when a black pickup truck heading south drove onto the curb and hit them, London police said in a statement. “We believe that this was an intentional act and that the victims of this horrific incident were targeted because of their Islamic faith,” Police Chief Steve Williams told a news conference the next day.

Minutes after hitting the family, the driver stopped in a mall parking lot about seven kilometres southeast. He got out, confronted a taxi driver on a smoke break and “yelled at [him] to call police because he had killed somebody,” said Hasan Savehilaghi, president of Yellow London Taxi. The cab driver called 911, then sprinted after a police car going by and told her what the truck driver had said; more officers came and arrested the man.

Police, the cab driver and other bystanders have said the truck driver was wearing an armoured vest and helmet. One witness said the truck had a push bar, a protective device on the front bumper that police vehicles sometimes use to ram other cars or fences.

The London family: Who was killed, who survived
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From right to left: Salman Afzaal, his mother, his wife Madiha Salman and his daughter Yumna Afzaal.Courtesy of the Afzaal family

Relatives have identified the dead as three generations of a single Pakistani-Canadian family:

  • Husband and wife Salman Afzaal, 46, and Madiha Salman, 44
  • Their daughter Yumna Salman, 15
  • Mr. Afzaal’s mother, 74

The survivor was the couple’s nine-year-old son, Fayez, who has some broken bones and is in serious but not life-threatening condition. His uncle and other extended family from across Ontario came to care for him.

The suspect

Nathaniel Veltman, 20, is charged with four counts of first-degree murder and one of attempted murder. Police said they knew of no previous connection between him and the victims and that he may have chosen them as targets at random.

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London, June 8: A young girl holds a sign during a vigil at the London Muslim Mosque.Geoff Robins/The Canadian Press

Reaction to the London attack

Londoners laid flowers at the intersection to pay tribute to the family, and the London Muslim Mosque organized a June 8 vigil that a huge crowd attended, including imams, community leaders, first responders who tried to save the family, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario Premier Doug Ford.

Ed Holder, mayor of London

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

Ontario Premier Doug Ford

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan

Racist attacks in Canada: A recent history

From Quebec City to London

Monday’s attack is not the first time Muslim Canadians have been targeted in recent years. In 2017, six Quebeckers were massacred in a mosque by a Quebec City man who is now set to serve at least 25 years in prison; the Supreme Court of Canada will decide the proper sentence for him later this year. This past September, Toronto police charged a man with first-degree murder after the fatal stabbing of a volunteer caretaker at an Etobicoke mosque.

The pandemic has only worsened “xenophobic and anti-authority narratives” in Canada, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service warned in an April report, citing the rise in online misinformation and conspiracy theories fuelled by organized hate groups. In 2020, police-reported hate crimes in Toronto were up 51 per cent compared with the year before; in Vancouver, it was 97 per cent, with anti-Asian attacks increasing sevenfold.

Should the London attacker face terrorism charges?

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A police officer stands guard on the roof of the London Muslim Mosque on June 8.Geoff Robins/The Canadian Press

For racialized communities in Canada, the London tragedy – which Mr. Trudeau, Mr. Ford and others have denounced as a terrorist attack – has renewed questions about whether and how killings like the ones in London should be treated as terrorism. For Canadian prosecutors, the difference between terrorism as a political label and as a criminal offence is sharp, and laying charges can be a high-risk, low-reward strategy: Convicting someone of terrorism requires more proof of motive than first-degree murder, but since the sentences for the two crimes are the same, prosecutors will often focus with the latter. The Quebec City gunman, for instance, was never charged with terrorism; he pleaded guilty to six counts of first-degree murder.

Legal experts and advocates who spoke with The Canadian Press said it may be too early to lay terrorism charges, but doing so anyway would send an important message that such crimes are to be taken seriously. Yusuf Faqari, the Quebec director of public affairs for the National Council of Canadian Muslims, said it could be vital to preventing more killings:

These poor Canadians of Islamic origin lost their lives because of the faith that they practise. What else do we need more there to call it what it is? It needs to be called a terrorist attack so it prevents other tragedies.

Opinion and analysis

Sheema Khan: The London attack reaffirms why Muslims often feel unsafe in their own country

Leenat Jilani: The attack in London did not occur in a vacuum. It is a reflection of my city – and of Canada

Omer Aziz: Islamophobia begins with ideas. It always ends in violence

Jessica Davis: More transparency is needed on decisions about terrorism charges

Robyn Urback: Trudeau will fight discrimination against Muslims – so long as they don’t live in Quebec

Compiled by Globe staff

With reports from Colin Freeze and The Canadian Press

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