A Canadian man is accused of hitting five members of a Muslim family with his car on Sunday night, killing four of them in what police suspect was a premeditated attack motivated by Islamophobia.
Police said at a Monday press conference that the family was on a walk when they were struck in London, Ontario, a city southwest of Toronto. According to Det. Supt. Paul Waight, the family was waiting to cross the street at the intersection when a lone man driving a black pickup jumped the curb and hit them.
The pickup then sped away in the same direction, ignoring traffic lights. A driver was soon arrested at a mall parking lot, according to Waight, who said there was no known connection between the driver and the victims. The detective confirmed that the man they arrested was wearing a vest that looked like body armor.
“There was evidence that this was a planned and premeditated attack motivated by hate. It is believed that these victims were targeted because they were Muslim,” Waight said. Police Chief Steve Williams also said that police “believe that this was an intentional act” based on information collected during the ongoing investigation.
When emergency crews got to the crash scene, the eldest family member was already dead. The other four were rushed to the hospital, but three of them died of their injuries. A family friend told City News that the family was part of London’s Pakistani community and that the father was a doctor serving the area.
Those killed have been identified by family members as Salman Afzaal, 46; his wife, Madiha Salman, 44; their 15-year-old daughter, Yumnah Afzaal; and Salman Afzaal’s 74-year-old mother, whose name has not yet been released.
Fayez Afzaal, the 9-year-old son of Salman Afzaal and Madiha Salman, is in the hospital with serious but non-life-threatening injuries, Reuters reported.
“We understand that this event may cause fear and anxiety in the community, and in particular the Muslim community and any community targeted by hate,” Williams said. “I want to reassure all Londoners that all of us … stand with you and support you. There is no tolerance in this community for individuals who, motivated by hate, target others with violence.”
The National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) released a statement on Monday saying that the organization was “beyond horrified” at the attack and demanded justice for the family.
“This is a terrorist attack on Canadian soil, and should be treated as such. We call on the government to prosecute the attacker to the fullest extent of the law, including considering terrorist charges,” NCCM CEO Mustafa Farooq said in the statement.
“Muslims in Canada have become all too familiar with the violence of Islamophobia, with attacks on Muslim women in Alberta, the IMO mosque killing, and the Quebec City mosque massacre,” he added. “But this loss of a family, the loss of a child in our community because of Islamophobia ― this is a sorrow that will run deep for a long time. But let that sorrow be the ground where we stand for justice, and stand for change.”
Police arrested and charged 20-year-old London resident Nathaniel Veltman with four counts of first-degree murder and a count of attempted murder. He is scheduled to appear in court on Thursday.
Waight said police are so far unaware of whether Veltman is associated with any hate group. They said they are confident, though, that there is enough evidence to deem the incident a hate attack. London police are working with federal police on the investigation to potentially seek terrorism charges, according to Waight.
“This was an act of mass murder, perpetrated against Muslims, against Londoners, and rooted in unspeakable hatred. The magnitude of such hatred can make one question who we are as a city and who we are as Londoners,” said London Mayor Ed Holder, who said he’s met with leaders of the Muslim community to express his condolences.
“It’s up to us, though ― all of us ― to answer that question, through not only our words but our actions. We can say, ‘This isn’t who we are,’ and I know that to be true. Words, though, are not enough. We must demonstrate, behave and act on those words.”
In a statement Tuesday, family members of the victims pushed back on the police’s initial statement that Veltman wasn’t a member of a hate group and that he didn’t appear to have any accomplices.
“The young man who committed this act of terror was influenced by a group that he associated with, and the rest of the community must take a strong stand against this,” the family said, adding, “We need to stand against hate and Islamophobia and raise awareness in our communities and across all the political spectrum.”
A community vigil will be held at the London Muslim Mosque on Tuesday evening, NCCM said.
Hayley Miller contributed reporting.