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Judge rules killer of London, Ont., Muslim family committed terrorism, calling it a ‘textbook example’

Warning: This story contains distressing details.

The actions of a man who was convicted of murder and attempted murder after deliberately driving his truck into five members of the Afzaal family in London, Ont., on June 6, 2021, amounted to terrorism under Canadian law, a judge ruled Thursday

“I have chosen not to name the offender nor recite the hateful hateful statements that he shared with police or in his manifesto. This is because his actions constitute terrorist activity,” Superior Court Justice Renee Pomerance told a packed courtroom.

“One might go so far as to characterize this as a textbook example of terrorist motive and intent…By not referring to the offender by name, and not restating his views, I am trying to reduce the potential use of these proceedings as a platform for the ideology that spawned the violent acts of June 6, 2021.” 

The tentacles of hate can reach a broad audience when they are merely a click away.​​​​​​– Justice Renee Pomerance

A jury in Windsor found Nathaniel Veltman, 23, guilty of four counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder in November.

Yumnah Afzaal, 15, her parents — Madiha Salman, 44, an engineer, and Salman Afzaal, 46, a physiotherapist — were killed, as was family matriarch Talat Afzaal, 74, a teacher and artist. The boy who survived was among dozens of people who gave victim impact statements in January during the first part of the sentencing.

The case served as a test of how Canada’s terror laws apply to white nationalists.

The murder convictions carry an automatic sentence of life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years, but it was up to Pomerance to determine whether his actions constituted terrorism, based on the facts considered by the jury that convicted him. The judge also sentenced him to a concurrent life sentence for the attempted murder of the orphaned boy, the stiffest penalty allowed under Canadian law. Defence lawyers had asked for 10 years. 

Afzaal family relatives express relief, thanks

Relatives of the Afzaal family released a statement after the hearing.

“Today’s sentencing has brought relief to people near and far,” the statement said. “The terrorism designation acknowledges the hate that fuelled this fire, the ugliness that took the lives of Talat, Salman, Madiha and Yumnah. But this hate didn’t exist in a vacuum. It thrived in the whispers, the prejudices, the normalized fear of the other…That hate hidden in plain sight was normalized by the unchallenged belief that a racial hierarchy exists in Canada.” 

WATCH | CBC’s coverage of judge ruling attack on Muslim family amounted to terrorism:

Judge rules killer of London, Ont., Muslim family committed terrorism

7 hours ago

Duration 7:00

The actions of a man convicted of killing a London family in 2021 because of their Muslim faith amounted to terrorism, a judge has ruled. ‘In fact, one could say this was a textbook case of terrorist activity,’ said Superior Court Justice Renee Pomerance.

Pomerance on Thursday pointed to the impact of “social media and other internet sources, including the dark web, in implifying and spreading messages of hate,” adding this case stands as a cautionary tale.

“It is too simplistic to draw a straight line of causation between the offender’s actions and what he read on the internet [but] the offender drew much of his rage from internet sources, which he repeatedly accessed in the days and moments leading up to the attack. The tentacles of hate can reach a broad audience when they are merely a click away.” 

People walking
Supporters of the Afzaal family arrive at Ontario Superior Court for the sentencing hearing of Nathaniel Veltman in London on Thursday, where a judge handed down a decision that includes his attack on the family in 2021 amounted to terrorism. (Nicole Osborne/The Canadian Press)

In her decision, Pomerance refused to detail the racist, white supremacist ideology the accused espoused. She called terrorism and the hatred that underpins it “anathema to the democratic ideals that define a free and democratic society.” 

“There is no place in Canadian society for the hatred and racism that spawned the offender’s actions. Because they have no place in Canadian society, they will not be given a place in my reasons.

“This event sent ripples of fear and devastation throughout the London community and beyond,” she said.

“The offender held antipathy toward any number of identifiable groups, including Muslims, Blacks, Jews and abortion doctors. However, there is a discernible thread that knits his views together,” Pomerance said. “He saw the world through the prism of racist dogma and his consumption of extremist content on the internet fed the strength of his convictions.

“This event sent ripples of fear and devastation throughout the London community and beyond. He killed them because they were Muslim.”

The Crown’s case was overwhelming, Pomerance said.

“All crimes offend the social order,” she said. “Terrorist activity seeks to overthrow the social order. All crimes against individuals result in social harm. Terrorist activity sets out to create social harm through crimes against individuals.” 

Ahead of Thursday’s hearing, Amira Elghawaby, Canada’s Special Representative on Combatting Islamophobia, said the facts of the case clearly point to terrorism.

“There is no doubt that the Afzaal family were killed in a deliberate act of anti-Muslim hate, and it’s clear from having listened to the testimony and from seeing and understanding the evidence — this was an act that terrorized London and communities across the country,” Elghawaby said.  

A family stands outside, looking to the camera. There are trees in the background.
Yumna Afzaal, 15, left, Madiha Salman, 44, centre left, Talat Afzaal, 74, and Salman Afzaal, 46, right, were out for an evening walk when they were run over by a truck on June 6, 2021, in London. (Submitted by the Afzaal family)

The Crown had argued it would be hard to imagine a stronger case for terrorism than this one — the convicted killer wrote a white supremacist manifesto, deliberately drove his pickup truck into the family because of the traditional Pakistani clothing they were wearing, and confessed to wanting to send a violent message to other Muslims and inspire other angry white men.

Our justice system has an obligation to ensure that people of all faiths and backgrounds feel like they belong, and that includes holding people accountable when they engage in acts of terrorism against racialized minorities.– Nawaz Tahir, lawyer and Hikma board member

Minority communities in Canada wanted the judge’s ruling to reflect the reality that they can be terrorized and the justice system will hold perpetrators accountable, London lawyer Nawaz Tahir, who sits on the board of Hikma, a public advocacy group that speaks on behalf of Muslims, said before the sentence was handed down. 

“It’s important legally but it’s also important from a belonging perspective,” Tahir said. “Our justice system has an obligation to ensure that people of all faiths and backgrounds feel like they belong, and that includes holding people accountable when they engage in acts of terrorism against racialized minorities.” 

Court sketch of Nathaniel Veltman, 23, listening on Feb. 22, 2024, as Justice Renee Pomerance delivers her sentencing ruling, including that his 2021 actions were terrorist activity.
Nathaniel Veltman, 23, listens on Feb. 22, 2024, as Justice Renee Pomerance delivers her sentencing ruling, including that his 2021 actions were terrorist activity. (Pam Davies/CBC)

Defence lawyers argued their client was not motivated by a particular ideology and his beliefs, however abhorrent, were not terrorism, an assertion the judge rejected. 

Adding the terrorism designation could be a factor in the convicted killer’s future parole board applications. 

London Morning5:43Was the Afzaal family murder an act of terrorism?

CBC reporter Kate Dubinski has been following the murder trial of Nathaniel Veltman. Kate joined London Morning with an update on the sentencing hearing where the judge will decide if the mass murder was an act of terrorism.

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