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Muslim Communities in Canada Continue to Fear for Their Safety After Deadly Terrorist Attack in Ontario

The Afzaal family was targeted simply for looking Muslim. Immediate and stronger action against all forms of hate crime in Canada must be enforced to prevent callous and deadly attacks.

Three generations of a Muslim family innocently walking together were killed when terrorist Nathaniel Veltman intentionally plowed his truck into Salman Afzaal, 46, his wife Madiha Salman, 44, their daughter Yumna Afzaal, 15, Salman’s mother, Talat Afzaal, 74, and their youngest son Fayez aged nine on Sunday 6th June. Fayez is now an orphan and currently recovering in hospital. 

On Tuesday 8th June, thousands of mourners attended a socially distanced vigil in London, Ontario to honour the victims and protest peacefully against hate. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the leaders of opposition political parties also attended the vigil.

Trudeau stated that “Islamophobia is real. Racism is real…We must stand together and say no to hatred.” And for the first time ever in history, the adhan (Muslim call to prayer) was aired on Canadian national TV.

Political leaders generally tend to refrain from labelling specific hate crimes but in a powerful statement, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told Parliament:

This was a terrorist attack, motivated by hatred, in the heart of one of our communities. If anyone thinks racism and hatred don’t exist in this country, I want to say this: How do we explain such violence to a child in a hospital? How can we look families in the eye and say ‘Islamophobia isn’t real’?”

But political words of sympathy offer little comfort to Muslim communities in Canada who fear for their safety. Many Canadian Muslims have expressed that Islamophobia and racism are exacerbated by current laws in Canada.

The attack has prompted fresh scrutiny over Quebec’s Laicity Act, which is commonly known as Bill 21. The law was passed in 2019 banning civil servants from wearing religious symbols at work. It doesn’t specifically mention Muslims but the ban prohibits Muslim women from wearing hijabs.

At Tuesday’s news conference, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked several times if he would speak out against Bill 21. In response, he said, “I have long expressed my disagreement with Bill 21…But I have also indicated that it is for Quebecers to challenge and defend their rights in court, which they have been doing.”

Suha Hammad, a 42-year-old Palestinian-Canadian who is the mother of 3 children, is concerned that her hijab makes her a visible target for anti-Muslim hate crimes:

I never imagined that this event will happen here in London … but what happened made me (feel) unsafe for myself, my kids, for any woman who’s wearing a hijab.”

Ali Chahbar, a lawyer living in London, Ontario said:

Every time I walk into a mosque on Friday, I’d be lying to you if I didn’t think about New Zealand, the mosque shooting there. I would be lying to you if I didn’t think about the Quebec City shooting, and the fact that there’s a possibility that you may walk in, but be carried out.”

In 2017, a gunman opened fire on a Quebec City mosque, killing six people and injuring 19, in one of the deadliest mass shootings in Canada. And in 2020, there was a fatal stabbing at a mosque in Etobicoke, Ontario.

Nathaniel Veltman, aged 20, has been charged with four counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder.

Steve Williams, chief of the London Police Service told CBC news: “We had the information early on that supported the evidence that this was a hate-motivated incident, that it was intentional and that this family was targeted,” he said. “We wanted to provide this information to the public. Now that the charges are laid, we have to be careful about what information we release. We know that the steps we take are going to be scrutinized, and we don’t get any re-dos. We only have one shot to get this right.” 

Williams said he understands the Muslim community’s concerns about being the target of Islamophobic violence based on their appearance: “We will do our part to enhance the safety and security of every member of the community,” he said. “But London is a safe community and we will do our part to ensure that.”  

Prior to the Quebec City mosque shooting in 2017, Canada had a reputation for being relatively Muslim friendly and tolerant. But according to statistics from 2019, Islamophobia and hate crimes have increased by 9%. And in 2020, Toronto Police stated hate crime has increased by 50%.

Nabil Sultan, chairman of the Muslim Association of Canada, who lives in London, Ontario said:

There is a frustration that Islamophobia in the country seems to be growing, despite all of the words people are hearing from politicians. People are devastated, heartbroken, and worried about the safety of their children precisely because this is an activity people would not think twice about. The idea of walking your family in the street is something you do without thinking twice – and now we have to think twice. Now, we have to wonder: are we putting our families at risk?”

As a result of the latest tragic and deadly attack in Ontario, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has reiterated his vows to “dismantle far-right groups.” He also promised to do more of what the Canadian government is currently doing, which includes providing money to increase security at mosques and tackle online extremism. 

Trudeau has stated the perpetrator “does not represent us as Canadians.”  But NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said on Tuesday 8th June that while some people say the London, Ontario attack is “not our Canada,” it “is our Canada” and that the country was a place “of racism, of violence, of genocide of Indigenous people and our country is a place where Muslims aren’t safe.” Despite being a Sikh, Singh has also been a victim of Islamophobia because he wears a turban.

The National Council of Canadian Muslims has called on the Canadian government to hold an emergency national summit to end Islamophobia. It’s important that recurring Islamophobic hate crimes in Canada should not be complacently viewed as isolated incidents.

The Afzaal family was targeted simply for looking Muslim. Immediate and stronger action against all forms of hate crime in Canada must be enforced to prevent callous and deadly attacks.

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