People show up to the location where a family of five was hit by a driver, in London, Ont., Monday, June 7, 2021. Four of the members of the family died and one is in critical condition. A 20 year old male has been charged with four counts of first degree murder and count of attempted murder in connection with the crime. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Brett Gundlock

‘Our souls are numb;’ vigil planned for victims of anti-Muslim attack in London, Ont.

LONDON, Ont. — Pandemic restrictions were eased Tuesday to allow mourners to attend a vigil for a Muslim family cut down as they took their regular evening stroll in what many have characterized as an act of terrorism.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario Premier Doug Ford were among dignitaries expected to join grief-stricken members of the community at the main mosque in London, Ont., for the commemoration.

“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.”

Three generations of the family were killed when a man driving a black Dodge Ram deliberately smashed into them on a sidewalk as they waited to cross an intersection in the northwest end of the city, police said.

Relatives identified the victims as Salman Afzaal, 46, his wife Madiha Salman, 44, daughter Yumna Salman, 15, and her 74-year-old grandmother. The couple’s nine-year-old boy, Fayez, remained in hospital with serious injuries.

Investigators said the driver targeted the victims because of their Muslim faith.

“Their lives were taken in a brutal, cowardly, and brazen act of violence,” Trudeau told the House of Commons. “This was a terrorist attack, motivated by hatred, in the heart of one of our communities.”

London’s mayor called it an act of “mass murder.”

A fundraising web page said the dead father was a physiotherapist and cricket enthusiast, while his “brilliant” wife was working on her PhD in civil engineering at Western University. Their daughter was finishing Grade 9, while her grandmother was a “pillar” of the family, the page said.

Two online fundraisers for the surviving boy had taken in more than $850,000 as of early Tuesday afternoon.

Police arrested Nathaniel (Nate) Veltman, 20, of London, on Sunday at a mall about seven kilometres from the carnage shortly after the driver sped off from the scene. He is charged with four counts of first-degree murder and one of attempted murder.

Police, who were at his downtown apartment on Tuesday, said he was wearing what appeared to be body armour but did not elaborate.

At the London Muslim Mosque the family attended, a growing memorial of flowers lay on the steps of the main entrance. A police vehicle sat at the back of the parking lot keeping watch.

Sana Yasir, a friend of the family who lives nearby, said she had been in touch with Salman Afzaal’s brother and sister-in-law. Yasir released a statement on their behalf:

“We need to understand that the destruction of a family in the brutal and horrific manner like this is something we must all stand against,” the statement said. “We need to stand against hate and Islamophobia and raise awareness in our communities and throughout all political spectrum.”

Yasir said the family was well known in the local Pakistani-Muslim community.

“They were the most loving, caring and genuine family and would always greet you with a smile,” she said.

Khamissa stressed the deep roots of the Muslim community in the southwestern Ontario city. The mosque, he said, was the second oldest in Canada.

“This London community here has helped built the city,” he said. “This is their home. For the first time, those who wear the scarf, who have a beard, feel like it’s not.”

Mike Phillips, principal of Oakridge Secondary School, where Yumna Salman was an honour roll student, said the school community was in mourning. He described her as smart, dedicated and always ready to be helpful.

“One teacher described her as being creative and confident, and having a bright and sparkling personality arriving each day to class with a smile,” Phillips said. “She’ll be deeply missed by her classmates and teachers.”

Dozens of people went to the attack scene on Monday and again on Tuesday to pay tribute. They cried, hugged and placed flowers around a light pole and nearby tree, a metre from where the speeding pickup truck hopped the curb.

Rauf Ahmad and three of his friends watched the growing tribute. All said they had relatives killed in Pakistan over their Muslim faith.

“I didn’t think there was racism in Canada and I felt very safe when I came here two years ago, but I do not feel safe now,” Ahmad said. “Humanity is first, we should not care about whether someone is a Muslim, a Jew or a Christian.”

London Mayor Ed Holder said he expected a “massive” turnout at the vigil given the outpouring of support.

“The fact that this has garnered such broad attention will be very impactful for London,” Holder said.

Politicians abroad also denounced the attack, some calling it an act of terror. Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, said it revealed the “growing Islamophobia in Western countries.”

The group Independent Jewish Voices Stands expressed solidarity with Canadian Muslims, calling the attack “beyond horrific.”

“We must name Islamophobia and white supremacy when they occur, and take real steps to end the normalization of both in Canadian culture,” Davita Guslits, a member of the group in London, said in a statement. “Attacks like these do not occur in a vacuum.”

Ford similarly called the “horrific and deliberate attack” an act of terrorism that had left the province in mourning. Ford said all government events had been cancelled for the day.

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole was also expected to attend the vigil.

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