Outside the London, Ont., mosque where the Afzaal family once worshipped, community leaders, politicians and people of all faiths gathered to mourn three generations of a family, and call for collective action against anti-Islamic hate.
In about two hours of speeches, speakers at the vigil on Tuesday repeatedly called for both personal and political action to address racism, hatred and Islamophobia, including a national summit on Islamophobia and action against hate groups.
“Every single one of us, we need to do our part,” said Imam Abd Alfatah Twakkal, who addressed the crowd from the steps of the London Muslim Mosque during the vigil. “And we need to do this together, collectively.”
He called on elected officials and all Canadians, “to make a commitment, a solemn promise that you will do everything within your capacity to fight the scourge of racism of discrimination and xenophobia in any form that it exists.”
Four members of the same family were killed as they went for an evening walk together in the northwest end of London on Sunday evening.
Police say Salman Afzaal, 46, his 44-year-old wife, Madiha Salman, their 15-year-old daughter Yumna Salman, and Salman Afzaal’s 74-year-old mother were struck intentionally by a man driving a black Dodge Ram, as they waited on the sidewalk to cross an intersection. (Mr. Afzaal’s mother has not been identified by name by the extended family.)
Salman and Madiha’s nine-year-old son, Fayez, survived and is in hospital.
Pandemic restrictions were eased in London to allow mourners to attend the vigil, where people had gathered throughout the day to mourn and pay their respects.
“We’re gathering here with our leaders, with our community, to mourn together because this is a horrific attack,” said Omar Khamissa, with the National Council for Canadian Muslims. “Our souls are numb.”
The vigil began with an Indigenous land acknowledgement and a reading from the Koran. In attendance were the first responders and firefighters who had attempted to save the family.
In his comments, Nawaz Tahir, a lawyer and chair of Hikma, a London anti-Islamophobia advocacy organization, asked: “What is the point on freedom of expression if a Canadian family does not have the freedom to walk on a sidewalk in this country without getting murdered?”
“We are in a war against hate and that war requires non-partisanship,” he said. “It requires co-operation. It requires united leadership and action.”
Among those in the crowd that gathered around the mosque was Sana Khan, 23, who said she attended the vigil both as a member of the Pakistani community, and because Salman was a friend of her father.
“When something happens, we all come together and you know, for us, we feel it as if it’s our own loss,” she said. “And it is.”
Ms. Khan said her father died of COVID-19 two weeks ago, and would have been very hurt to hear about what happened to his friend.
“They met because they valued their culture, their religion, but aside from that, the biggest thing that their religion taught them was love and peace,” she said. She described Mr. Afzaal as “a good man to everybody.”
“The biggest thing of it all, religion, just gives us morals and keeps us grounded and teaches us to respect,” she said. “But some people look at it like it’s a threat.”
London police have arrested Nathaniel Veltman, 20, who they allege intentionally drove his pickup truck onto a sidewalk in London on Sunday, targeting the family because of their Islamic faith. Police have said he was wearing a body armour-style vest.
All federal party leaders, Ontario Premier Doug Ford, and other religious, political and community leaders spoke at the Tuesday evening event.
In his comments, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke of the family, who “touched so many around them,” and said Canadians must make a pact to look out for, take care of, and respect each other.
“Islamophobia is real. Racism is real. You should not have to face that hate in your communities, in your country. We can and we will act. We can and we will choose a better way,” he said. “When someone hurts any of us, when someone targets any parent or child or grandparent, we must all stand together and say no. No to hatred and to Islamophobia. No to terror and to racism.”
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said the mosque where the crowd gathered was a reminder that Muslims helped build the city of London, “and today, this entire community and this entire country stands with you, as we come to grips with this attack.”
He called the rise in Islamophobia and other forms of hate in the last year, “the pandemic of darkness amid the COVID 19 pandemic.”
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh called the attack “a heinous and horrible act of terror,” but vowed, “we will not let terror win.”
“We will not cower in fear. We will wear our turbans, our hijabs, with pride, because we are proud of who we are,” he said.
He likened hate to fire that takes holds and consumes everyone.
“It is our collective responsibility to stand against that hate,” he said. “To give it no air to breathe, no space to take hold. That is our collective responsibility, and one I ask all of you to take together.”
Green Party Leader Annamie Paul also called for action in the wake of the attack, saying “Where there is pain, we will replace it with action ... And where there is division, we will ensure that there is unity. We will ensure that those who seek to divide us, will not succeed.”
Ontario Premier Doug Ford called the attack “a tragedy beyond words,” and “an awful act of hatred.”
“We were left trying to understand how this can happen, in a beautiful country, and a beautiful province, like Ontario,” he said. “We know only that this awful crime was motivated purely by hatred and racism.”
He said racism and terrorism must be condemned and punished to the fullest extent of the law.
Each of the federal leaders had also spoken about the attack in the House of Commons on Tuesday, where Mr. Trudeau had denounced it as a “sickening” act of terrorism and Islamophobia.
Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet said the attack echoed the January, 2017, mosque attack in Quebec City that left six dead and five wounded.
“We can’t allow these things to happen over and over again and do nothing other than offer our condolences and our tears,” Mr. Blanchet said. “This must stop now.”
Speaking earlier in the day about specific policy measures to counter Islamophobia, the Prime Minister had touted various investments, including federal funding to help cultural and religious organizations better protect themselves against hate-motivated crimes.
He also said the government would continue to fight online and offline hate, and take more action to dismantle far-right hate groups as was done with the Proud Boys by adding them to Canada’s terror listing.
Asked whether he agreed with experts and advocates that Quebec’s Bill 21 fosters hatred and discrimination, the Prime Minister said he has long expressed his disagreement with the bill, but that he had “also indicated that it is for Quebeckers to challenge and defend their rights in court, which they have been doing.”
The law, adopted in 2019, prohibits public sector workers who are deemed to be in positions of authority, including teachers, police officers and judges, from wearing religious symbols at work. The law has been criticized as being aimed at people who wear Islamic head scarves.
The Prime Minister said he expected there will be “reflections” about many pieces of legislation, including Bill 21, amidst an understanding about fighting Islamophobia and intolerance.
Among the crowd in attendance at the vigil on Tuesday was 17-year-old Nour Dyab, who had been part of a group of students who made green and purple ribbons to hand out at the vigil in commemoration of their schoolmate, Yumna, and her family.
The ribbons were green – the colour used to represent the fight against Islamophobia – and purple, Yumna’s favourite colour. Many in the crowd on Tuesday night wore purple, and some women wore purple hijabs. Some in the crowd carried signs with messages including, “Call it what it is. Terrorism” and “Hate killed my friend.”
“This is a terrorist act against our religion,” Ms. Dyab said. “It doesn’t hit close to home. It is home.”
With reports from Jeff Gray, Mike Hager and The Canadian Press.
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