Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

From the left: Afzaal family members Ali Islam, Tabinda Bukhari and Hina Islam speak to the media after the sentencing of Nathaniel Veltman in London, Ont., on Feb. 22.Nicole Osborne/The Canadian Press

An Ontario judge has ruled that Nathaniel Veltman’s attack on a Muslim family in London, Ont., nearly three years ago was an act of terrorism, and has sentenced the 23-year-old to life in prison for a crime the court found represented an assault on Canada’s core values.

Ontario Superior Court Justice Renee Pomerance’s ruling, as she sentenced Mr. Veltman on Thursday for four counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder, marked the first time a white nationalist has been labelled a terrorist under Canada’s anti-terrorism law. He will serve five life sentences concurrently, with no chance of parole for 25 years.

Experts hailed the 155-paragraph ruling as a road map that will simplify future prosecution of violent extremists at a time when police and intelligence services have singled out white nationalism as a growing threat.

“Terrorist activity has a uniquely pernicious character. All crimes offend the social order; terrorist activity seeks to overthrow the social order,” Justice Pomerance said in her ruling, which she read aloud in a London courtroom.

The ruling says that all violent extremist causes can be cancers that “metastasize and spread” in society, and that the courts have a clear role in calling out such beliefs and denouncing them as deplorable.

It says this includes the crimes of Mr. Veltman, a young man who spent months reading and writing extremist manifestos urging indiscriminate attacks against Muslims before the June, 2021, attack, in which he rammed his truck into five members of a Pakistani-Canadian family who were out for a walk on a London street.

Four of them died: Salman and Madiha Afzaal, both in their 40s; their 15-year-old daughter Yumnah; and her paternal grandmother, Talat, 74. A nine-year-old boy was injured but survived.

During Thursday’s hearing, Justice Pomerance told Mr. Veltman to stand up and face her as she named each of his victims. She told him he would be receiving a life sentence for each of the four murders, and also for the attempted killing of the young boy.

Mr. Veltman, dressed entirely in black, listened as Justice Pomerance denounced him. “I find that the offender’s actions constitute terrorist activity,” her ruling says.

The Afzaals’ family members assembled outside the court. Last month, several of them told the court in victim impact statements that they are still traumatized by the attack, to the point that some are afraid to walk the streets.

One member of the family, Ali Islam, said Thursday that he takes consolation in how the prosecution of Mr. Veltman has exposed a hidden evil in society. “It shines a light to the hatred that exists unchallenged. There is white supremacy in Canada,” he said.

Video footage presented at Mr. Veltman’s trial last fall showed him driving his Dodge Ram pickup past the Afzaal family, whom he had spotted at random. The video shows him making a U-turn and then accelerating toward them.

The ruling notes that Mr. Veltman was armed and wearing body armour when he was arrested, and that he had bought and outfitted his truck shortly before the attack. Mr. Veltman soon confessed to police that his actions were “politically motivated, 100 per cent.” The jury also heard about Mr. Veltman’s writings against mass immigration and Muslims.

The terrorism designation did not affect Mr. Veltman’s life sentence, which is automatic for first-degree murder. But the decision was closely watched as a new test of Canada’s terrorism laws.

Parliament passed the Anti-Terrorism Act in 2001, though the vast majority of terrorism prosecutions since then have been against suspects associated with designated terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda or the Islamic State. A terrorism designation can increase an offender’s penalty in some circumstances, and can affect parole decisions.

Experts say that Canada’s courts have heard few cases to date that have forced judges to define just what terrorist activity is, especially in cases involving suspects who align themselves with less familiar extremist causes.

“It’s never fulsomely been dealt with before,” said Leah West, a Carleton University professor who studies national security law. She said law enforcement officials have long needed clarification on such issues. “What evidence is necessary or sufficient to meet that criteria? We don’t have any law that explains that.”

Justice Pomerance’s ruling delves into the intended meaning of the legislation, which broadly defines terrorist activity as actions motivated by religion, politics or ideology that unlawfully use violence to intimidate the public in hopes of compelling wider changes to society.

In her ruling, Justice Pomerance notes that Mr. Veltman was a lone wolf who radicalized himself, reading rants people posted on the internet while sitting alone in the confines of his own apartment. “Terrorism is not exclusive to any group or ideology,” she wrote. “Right wing extremism is as potentially destructive of the social order as any other belief system promoting hate and violence.”

The ruling sets out a three-pronged test for terrorist activity. It says the onus is on the Crown to prove that terrorism was the motive for a violent crime, that terrorism was the intention, and that terrorism was the consequence.

Mr. Veltman more than met these standards for terrorist activity, the ruling says.

“The evidence establishes that the offender saw the world through the lens of a racist ideology that promoted the superiority of the white race,” Justice Pomerance wrote. “There is no place in Canadian society for the hatred and racism that spawned the offender’s actions.”

Outside London’s court on Thursday, Sarah Shaikh, a prosecutor in the case, said Mr. Veltman’s attack was more than an attack on one family. It was also an assault on fundamental values such as inclusivity, she said.

“As her honour stated today, terrorist activity seeks to overthrow social order. As such, it must be denounced in the strongest possible terms,” Ms. Shaikh said. Christopher Hicks, a lawyer for Mr. Veltman, said that no decision has been made yet on a possible appeal. “We’ll get instructions from our client,” he said.

Mr. Veltman is the second Ontario killer to be ruled a terrorist in recent months. In November, a Toronto judge sentenced 21-year-old Oguzhan Sert to life in prison after finding that he had engaged in terrorist activity when he used a sword to murder one massage parlour worker and injure another. The court found Mr. Sert, who was 17 at the time of the attack, had been motivated by misogynistic ideology he had encountered online.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe