People attend a memorial in London, Ontario, on Monday, at the location where a family of five was hit by a driver. Brett Gundlock / AP hide caption
Brett Gunlock / AP
Brett Gunlock / AP
TORONTO – A driver plowed a pickup truck into a family of five, killed four of them and seriously injured the other in a premeditated attack that targeted the victims for being Muslim, Canadian police said Monday.
Authorities said a young man was arrested in the parking lot of a nearby shopping mall on Sunday night in the London city of Ontario following the incident. According to the police, a black pickup drove onto a curb and rammed the victims at an intersection.
“This was a mass murder immortalized against Muslims,” said Mayor Ed Holder. “It was rooted in unspeakable hatred.”
The extended family issued a statement identifying the dead as Salman Afzal, 46; his wife Madiha, 44; her daughter Yumna, 15; and a 74-year-old grandmother whose name was withheld. The boy admitted to the hospital was identified as Fayez.
“Everyone who knew Salman and the rest of the Afzal family knows the model family they were as Muslims, Canadians and Pakistani,” the statement said. “They have worked extremely hard and distinguished themselves in their field. Their children were top students in their school and deeply connected to their spiritual identities.”
A fundraising website says the father is a physiotherapist and cricket enthusiast and that his wife is doing a PhD in civil engineering from Western University in London. Their daughter finished ninth grade, and the grandmother was a “pillar” of the family, the site said.
The family said in their statement that the public must stand up against hatred and Islamophobia.
“This young man who committed this act of terrorism was influenced by a group he was affiliated with and the rest of the community must stand up strongly against it, from the highest levels of our government to every member of the community,” he said Statement said.
Nathaniel Veltman, 20, has been remanded in custody on four counts for first degree murder. Police said Veltman, a resident of London, did not know the victims.
Detective Supt. Paul Waight said police had not determined whether the suspect belonged to any particular hate group. He said London Police are working with federal police and prosecutors to investigate possible terrorism charges. He declined to provide evidence suggesting a possible hate crime, but said the attack was planned.
About a dozen police officers combed the area around the crash site on Monday looking for evidence. Blue markings on the ground lined the intersection.
“We believe the victims were targeted because of their Islamic beliefs,” said Police Chief Stephen Williams. “… There is no tolerance in this community that is motivated by hatred to attack others with violence.”
Canada welcomes immigrants and all religions in general, but in 2017 a French-Canadian man known for far-right, nationalist views went on a rampage in a mosque in Quebec City, killing six people.
One woman who witnessed the aftermath of the fatal crash said she couldn’t stop thinking about the victims. Paige Martin said she was stopped at a red light around 8:30 p.m. when a large pickup truck zoomed past her. She said her car shook under the force.
“I was shocked because I thought it was an unpredictable driver,” said Martin.
Minutes later, she said, she came across a gruesome, chaotic scene at an intersection near her home where first responders rushed to help, a police officer performed chest compressions on one person, and three other people were lying on the ground. A few dozen people stood on the sidewalk and several drivers got out to help.
“I can’t get the screams out of my head,” said Martin.
Martin said she could see the scene from her apartment and watched an officer place a sheet over a corpse around midnight. “My heart is just so broken for her,” she said.
A family friend, Zahid Khan, said the three generations among the dead were a grandmother, a father, a mother and a teenage daughter. The family immigrated from Pakistan 14 years ago and are dedicated, decent and generous members of the Muslim mosque in London, he said.
“They were only there for their walk, which they took every day,” said Khan tearfully near the crash site. “I just wanted to see.”
Qazi Khalil said he saw the family on Thursday as they were taking their nightly walk. The families lived close together and would get together over the holidays, he said.
“It totally destroyed me from the inside,” said Khalil. “I can’t really get on the terms that you weren’t here anymore.”
The National Council of Canadian Muslims said Muslims in Canada had become all too familiar with the violence of Islamophobia. “This is a terrorist attack on Canadian soil and should be treated as such,” said Council President Mustafa Farooq.
Nawaz Tahir, a London lawyer and Muslim community leader, said: “We must confront and eradicate Islamophobia and Islamic violence – not tomorrow, today, for the benefit of our children, our families, our communities.”
The Mayor said flags would be lowered for three days in London, where 30,000 to 40,000 Muslims live among the more than 400,000 residents.
“To the Muslim community in London and to Muslims across the country, you know that we are by your side. Islamophobia does not have a place in any of our communities. This hatred is insidious and despicable – and it has to stop, ”Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted.