The recent hate attack that took the lives of four members of a Muslim family and left a fifth one seriously injured has shaken Canada to its core and raised fears of similar attacks triggered by religious or racial bias, in a country known for its big immigrant population and ethnocultural diversity.
On Sunday evening, a driver mounted a curb and plowed his pickup truck into the family who were out on an evening walk near their home after attending a mosque in London, Ontario, killing both parents, a daughter and grandmother.
Their 9-year-old son is reportedly now in stable condition.
The heinous crime has triggered heated debates about the emergence of Islamophobia in Canada and has drawn reactions from a number of Canadian officials.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has vowed to take more action to fight far-right hate groups.
Trudeau made the remarks on Tuesday evening as he joined several thousand mourners in a vigil at the London Muslim Mosque to remember three generations of the Afzaal family, of Pakistani origin, who lived in Canada.
“This was an act of evil. But the light of the people here today, the light of the lives of the Afzaal family – that will always outweigh the dark,” Trudeau said as he addressed the mourners, after placing flowers on the steps of the mosque.
Canada’s opposition leader, Erin O’Toole, as well as other political figures including NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, the first person of color to lead a federal political party in Canada, and Ontario Premier Doug Ford were also in attendance.
Speaking at the House of Commons earlier on Tuesday, Trudeau labeled the incident as a "terrorist attack."
"This was a terrorist attack, motivated by hatred, in the heart of one of our communities."
"We'll continue to fight hate online and offline ... (including) taking more action to dismantle far-right hate groups, like we did with the Proud Boys by adding them to Canada's terror listing," he said.
The suspect, identified as Nathaniel Veltman, was arrested at a mall seven kilometers from the intersection where the attack happened.
The 20-year-old assailant is now in custody and facing four counts of first-degree murder. Police said Veltman, a resident of London, did not know the victims.
The premediated attack has caused a nationwide outpouring of grief, with similar vigils taking place in Toronto, Vancouver and other cities across Canada.
London, a city of over 400,000 people located 200km southwest of Toronto, has a large Muslim community and at least three mosques.
Rows of freshly cut flowers were placed on the grass at the entrance of the London Muslim Mosque, and bouquets of flowers, stuffed animals and small signs expressing outrage were left at the street corner where the family was killed.
“This is our city,” Bilal Rahhal, chair of the mosque, told the crowd. “Never allow anyone to make you think otherwise because of the color of your skin, your faith, or where you were born. ... This is our city and we’re not going anywhere.”
Omar Khamissa, community engagement officer of the National Council of Canadian Muslims nonprofit group also said, "The London Muslim Mosque, it's the second-oldest mosque in Canada. ... This London (Muslim) community here has helped build this city."
"This is their home. And for the first time those that wear the scarf, who have beard, feel it's not," he added.
"A model family" mourned
Meanwhile, relatives of the victims have described them as a “model family,” urging the wider community to oppose racism and Islamophobia after police said the suspect had been motivated by hate.
“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 relatives said in a statement on Monday.
“We need to stand against hate and Islamophobia and raise awareness in our communities and across all the political spectrum,” they added.
However, they did not identify the group or explain how they know about the alleged ties.
According to the victim’s relatives, the children had both been top students and their parents were hard workers.
“Everyone who knew Salman and the rest of the ... family know the model family they were as Muslims, Canadians and Pakistanis. They were always there, giving and participating in spreading goodness,” the statement said.
The family members were active members of London’s Muslim and Pakistani communities and the children attended the local Islamic school. They had moved to Canada from Pakistan in 2007.
The GoFundMe page described Salman Afzaal, a physiotherapist, as a cricket enthusiast with a warm smile and Madiha as a scholar working hard to obtain her PhD in civil engineering from the University of Western Ontario.
As of Tuesday morning the page had raised just shy of C$270,000 ($223,454 in US dollars).
The latest attack has brought back painful memories of a Quebec City mosque mass shooting in January 2017 and a driving rampage in Toronto that killed 10 people in April 2018, among others.
Nawaz Tahrir, a spokesperson for the London Muslim Mosque said “After Quebec it was: are we safe praying in our mosques? And now it’s: are we safe going out for a walk after dinner?”
Canadians have to “ask more of our leaders” and enact policies that address the causes of anti-Muslim hate, he added.
“Until we do that, I fear that this isn’t going to be the last incident,” Tahrir said.