Thousands gather at London vigil for family run down in hate-motivated attack
Published Tuesday, June 8, 2021 5:17AM EDT
Last Updated Tuesday, June 8, 2021 11:20PM EDT
Thousands of people, including political and community leaders, gathered outside a London mosque Tuesday night to remember the members of a Muslim family who police say were intentionally struck down by a vehicle in a hate-motivated attack over the weekend.
Speakers at the vigil included leaders from all the major federal and provincial parties, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Premier Doug Ford.
“Islamophobia is real. Racism is real. You should not have to face that hate in your communities, in your country,” Trudeau said. He added that “we can and we will act. We can and we will choose a better way.”
Ford, saying he was speaking “on behalf of a province left in mourning,” called the attack “a senseless act of hatred and violence.”
“We are all shaken by this act,” Ford said. “We are left trying to understand how this could happen in a beautiful country, and a beautiful province, like Ontario. We know only that this awful crime was motivated purely by hatred and racism.”
He called it an act of mass murder, a hate crime and an “act of terrorism against a family targeted for their beliefs, or for their religion.”
Flags at all Ontario government buildings will fly at half-mast until the four family members are laid to rest.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said “this entire community and this entire country stands with you as we come to grips with this attack,” while NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said visible minorities in Canada “will not cower in fear” in the face of hate.
Green Party Leader Annamie Paul warned that “hate is growing” in Canada and that while the pandemic has brought out the best in some people “it has also brought out the worst in some people.”
Nusaiba Al-Azem, second vice-chair of the London Muslim Mosque, hosted the vigil and opened by saying that the community is struggling to explain the “horrific” incident to their children.
“I've walked that trail that our London family walked on Sunday, and never got to finish,” she said. “And just like many of my friends and family have expressed to each other, and on social media, it's not a matter that it could have been me. It was one of us.”
The family was out for an evening walk on Sunday when they were struck by a pickup truck being driven by a 20-year-old man. According to police, the vehicle mounted the curb and struck them as they waited to cross the street.
Four members of the family ranging in age from 15 to 74 were all killed as a result.
The fifth member of the family, a nine-year-old boy, was seriously injured but is expected to survive.
The suspect, identified as 20-year-old Nathaniel Veltman, allegedly sped away from the scene following the carnage but was arrested at a nearby mall a short time later. He is charged with four counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder in the attack.
“This is nothing short of a terrorist attack on innocent people based on their faith and their religion and there is no place for that in Ontario,” Ford told a pool reporter at Queen’s Park earlier Tuesday. “We are a community that sticks together and we will be united behind the Muslim community.”
Sunday’s attack and the subsequent allegation by police that it was motivated by hate has sent shockwaves through the London community and has prompted some calls for terror-related charges to be filed.
London police have said they are coordinating with the RCMP to determine whether terror charges might be laid.
Thousands stand in heat to decry hate
The vigil got underway at 7 p.m. at the London Muslim Mosque where the family were well known fixtures and thousands of people turned out despite hot, humid weather and COVID-19 restrictions.
In order to accommodate the vigil, Ford issued a one-time exemption lifting all pandemic gathering limits so long as attendees from different households remained two metres apart. Attendees also had to wear masks.
Speaking with CP24 earlier on Tuesday, London Mayor Ed Holder said that the vigil was about “London wrapping its collective arms around our Muslim community” as they begin the grieving process.
“The Muslim community has been very much a fabric of our community. They are phenomenal contributors to London's economic and cultural well being. They've always been there for us as a community and now it's our turn to be there for them,” he said. “So tonight we'll have a vigil at the London Muslim mosque and this will be London wrapping its collective arms around our little community and saying to them ‘we're in this together.’”
Holder said that Sunday’s attack was an “unthinkable” tragedy that has caused almost “indescribable pain and suffering.”
He said that he appreciates the fear and anxiety that many members of the city’s Muslim community are feeling in the wake of Sunday’s attack and wants them to know that the wider community is feeling their pain.
“We are all Londoners,” he said.
Family remembered for kind nature
Police have not released the names of the victims but relatives have identified them as Salman Afzaal, 46, his 44-year-old wife Madiha Salman, their 15-year-old daughter Yumna Salman and Afzaal's 74-year-old mother.
According to an online fundraiser page, Afzaal was a physiotherapist who was known for his “gentle and welcoming smile” while his wife “was a brilliant scholar and a caring mother and friend” who was obtaining her PhD in civil engineering at Western University.
The post said that the couple’s 15-year-old daughter was “a loving friend to many” who was just wrapping up her Grade 9 year while her grandmother “was a pillar of their family that cherished their daily walks.”
Speaking at the mosque vigil Tuesday, one of her former teachers recalled that Yumna wanted to paint a mural at the mosque to leave a legacy.
“She said, I want to leave a legacy, she proceeded to paint a mural in the mosque that reads, ‘shoot for the moon. Even if you miss you’ll land among the stars,’” he said.
One woman told CTV News that Salman worked as a physiotherapist at the home where her mother lives, driving an hour north of the city to treat his clients. She said the residents of the home are “devastated.”
“This family struggled very hard and established themselves. They went to school, their kids were very bright and they were there always there with smiles for their neighbours, for everyone. Even when someone was being difficult, they were always very gentle with them,” family friend Saboor Khan told CP24 on Tuesday. “Just the ease and comfort people would feel around them, that friendship, it is gone and it will be missed forever.”
More details emerge about suspect
Few details have emerged about the suspect and his motivations at this point, though a few new details have come to light.
CTV News obtained a photo of Veltman Tuesday.
Gray Ridge Egg Farms also released a statement acknowledging that the suspect was a part-time employee at its Strathroy plant and extended their “heartfelt sympathy to the family and the Muslim community."
Coworkers told CTV News that they don’t recall hearing Veltman make negative comments about other groups.
“I’m very shaken up about this,” co-worker Tina Perry said. “I never would think in a million years he would do something like that.”
She said he sometimes kept to himself, but that he had friends he hung out with “here and there.”
Veltman has been ordered not to communicate with a list of 24 people, including his mother, CTV News has learned.