With a call for Canadians to keep working to address hatred, relatives of a Muslim family killed by a self-professed white nationalist expressed some comfort Thursday that the man who murdered their loved ones had been found guilty at trial.
Nathaniel Veltman, whose crimes sparked national calls to combat Islamophobia, was found guilty of four counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder after a jury deliberated for roughly five hours.
The 22-year-old had pleaded not guilty to all charges and quietly looked straight ahead as his verdict was delivered.
Tabinda Bukhari, the mother of one of the victims, said Veltman’s actions were intended to drive people apart.
“This trial and verdict are a reminder that there is still much work to be done to address hatred in all forms that lives in our communities,” Bukhari, speaking on behalf of the victims’ family, said outside court moments later.
“This verdict represents to us, some solace for the crimes that were committed on that fateful day.”
The trial had heard that Veltman hit the Afzaal family with his truck while they were out for a walk on June 6, 2021.
Forty-six-year-old Salman Afzaal; his 44-year-old wife, Madiha Salman; their 15-year-old daughter, Yumna; and her 74-year-old grandmother, Talat Afzaal, were killed in the attack, while the couple’s nine-year-old son was seriously hurt but survived.
The attack on the Afzaal family spurred ongoing calls for measures to combat Islamophobia.
Members of the Muslim community were among those who packed the courtroom where Veltman’s verdict was delivered and could be seen hugging relatives of the victims after the jury’s decision.
Bukhari, Madiha Salman’s mother, said Veltman’s actions had devastated the family.
“The enduring grief, trauma, and the irreplaceable void left by the loss of multiple generations has pierced us profoundly,” she said.
“This trial forced us to return to that intersection once again. That dreadful crossroad where the very best and worst of humanity converged two and a half years ago.”
The tragedy did, however, result in communities coming together, she said.
“That juxtaposition between the diabolical intentions of a hell-bent criminal, and the love expressed by beautiful, teary-eyed strangers has become a catalyst for unity and justice,” she said.
“We have not been grieving alone. We are not healing alone. We pray that we can move forward to build a decent and just society.”
The case, which the jury heard over more than two months, was the first where Canada’s terrorism laws were put before a jury in a first-degree murder trial.
Justice Renee Pomerance told the jury they could deliver a first-degree murder verdict if they unanimously agreed that the Crown established Veltman had intended to kill the victims, and planned and deliberated his attack.
She also told the jurors they could reach a first-degree murder conviction on the basis that the killings were terrorist activity.
Juries do not provide details on how they reach their decisions.
Outside the courthouse, defence lawyer Christopher Hicks said Pomerance “can take her own view of the facts” in regards to the terror element during the sentencing process.
He said his client is “in shock” because first-degree murder carries an automatic sentence of life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years.
“So that’s a shock to him and he’s absorbing that,” Hicks said.
Crown prosecutors wrote in a statement they hope the verdict “can bring some measure of closure to the Afzaal family and the wider Muslim community.”
Omar Khamissa, chief operating officer of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, said he was in London in the aftermath of the attack. “I am not sure if my heart has ever truly healed since that day,” he said.
Veltman’s name “will end up on the trash pile of history,” Khamissa said, adding he would never forget “the evil that was revealed inside that courtroom.”
“And if I will never forget, what to say of the family? What to say of the London community? What to say of the Muslim community of Canada?”
The Crown had argued that Veltman carried out a terrorist act, and should be convicted of four counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder.
Crown attorney Fraser Ball said in closing arguments that Veltman planned his attack for months, bought a large pickup truck on a loan and installed a heavy grille guard on it.
Ball said Veltman had a message for Muslims in Canada that they would be killed like the Afzaal family if they didn’t leave the country.
He said Veltman also had a message to other white nationalists and he wanted to inspire them to commit violent attacks.
Meanwhile, the defence argued Veltman was not guilty of first-degree murder, nor did he commit an act of terrorism, because he didn’t have criminal intent to kill the victims and didn’t deliberate and plan the attack.
Hicks said Veltman suffered from several mental disorders including severe depression, autism spectrum disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder and had ingested magic mushrooms two days before the attack.
He said the attack was a “drug-induced hypomanic event” and that Veltman’s conduct around the time of the attack demonstrated “elevated” and “unpredictable” behaviour.
Hicks said Veltman should still be held responsible for the deaths of the victims and could be found guilty of manslaughter.
During the trial, Veltman testified that he was influenced by the writings of a gunman who committed the 2019 mass killings of 51 Muslim worshippers at two mosques in New Zealand.
He also said he had been considering using his pickup truck, which he bought a month earlier, to carry out an attack and looked up information online about what happens when pedestrians get struck by cars at various speeds.
Veltman testified that he ordered a bulletproof vest and a military-style helmet online in the month leading up to the attack and wore them on the day he ran down the Afzaal family.
He told the jury that he felt an “urge” to hit the family after seeing them walking on a sidewalk, adding that he knew they were Muslims from the clothes they were wearing and he noticed that the man in the group had a beard.
Jurors had previously seen video of Veltman telling a detective that his attack had been motivated by white nationalist beliefs.
Court also heard that he wrote a manifesto in the weeks before the attack, describing himself as a white nationalist and peddling unfounded conspiracy theories about Muslims.
After the attack, the National Council of Canadian Muslims released a list of recommendations to fight anti-Muslim hate, including calling on the federal and provincial governments to commit to anti-Islamophobia strategies in education and provide resources.
The federal government hosted a summit on Islamophobia in July 2021, and in January Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed journalist and human rights advocate Amira Elghawaby as Canada’s first special representative to combat Islamophobia.
Maan Alhmidi, The Canadian Press
– with files from Paola Loriggio in Toronto.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 16, 2023.