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As family mourns, Canada grapples with anti-Muslim prejudice

OTTAWA – With coronavirus restrictions still in place across much of Canada, many families have started dating for evening walks. On Sunday, however, a pleasant stroll became the scene of a fatal attack by a motorist who used his truck to kill four family members in London, Ont., And injure a boy who is now an orphan. They were targeted, according to police, because of their Muslim faith.

Along with the mourning, the deaths sparked anger and demands for government action against bigotry and violence against Muslims.

“Even after that, there are still people who say that Islamophobia does not exist,” said Mohamed Salih, member of London City Council. “The challenge and a reality we face is that far too often in our city there is Islamophobia. This is something that we have known for far too long.

On Tuesday evening, the province of Ontario temporarily lifted pandemic rules banning large gatherings to allow thousands to gather for a memorial outside the Muslim Mosque in London in remembrance of the Afzaal family- Salman. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was present.

Salman Afzaal, 46, was a physiotherapist who worked in long-term care homes. Madiha Salman, 44, was a doctoral student in civil engineering. They were married and had two children: a daughter, Yumna, 15, and Fayez, 9, who is seriously injured in hospital but is expected to recover.

Mr. Afzaal’s mother, Talat Afzaal, 74, was also killed in the attack.

Mr. Afzaal and Ms. Salman, who arrived as permanent residents in Canada in 2007, were active at the local mosque and volunteered in several organizations.

Ms. Salman had graduated in civil engineering from Pakistan, where she worked on a hydropower project for three years. After earning a master’s degree from Western University in London, she was completing her doctoral work.

Jason Gerhard, the professor who oversaw Ms Salman’s postgraduate work, said in an email that his research centers on decontaminating soil and groundwater contaminated with toxic chemicals. His “innovative experiments,” he said, showed that vegetable oil could be used in a process developed at the university to clean up chemicals in the soil. The work, he added, has been commercialized and is being used to clean up polluted industrial sites.

Her husband, Mr Afzaal, worked primarily in two long-term care homes in rural communities outside of London. Jeff Renaud, the administrator of the Ritz Lutheran Villa in Mitchell, said Mr. Afzaal continued to come throughout the pandemic as many other workers stopped.

“He was helping people at the end of their lives – your moms, dads, grandmothers and grandfathers – by trying to make them feel like they had their mobility and independence for as long as possible,” Mr. Renaud. “He really was just a great soul.”

Yumna, the girl, was a student at Oakridge High School, the Thames Valley District School Board said in a statement. Text from a mural she painted inside the local mosque reads: “Shoot for the moon, if you miss you will land among the stars.”

Her brother, Fayez, attends London Islamic School. It is a private institution, but the public school board provides grief counselors and other services to its students and staff.

Mr Afzaal and Ms Salman had relatives in London and elsewhere in Ontario and were particularly close to a neighboring family, the Khans, who also emigrated from Pakistan. Yasmin Khan said she, along with her parents and four siblings, came to regard the Afzaal-Salman family as relatives.

“They found family here and we found family here through them, so we all became brothers and sisters,” Ms. Khan said. “They were amazing, they were nice. They weren’t the type to hurt an animal or insect or anything like that.

At the vigil, held in hot and humid conditions, Trudeau said Canadians had again broken their pact to look out for one another when it came to their Muslim members.

“Islamophobia is real. Racism is real, ”Trudeau said. “We must stand together and say no to hatred. “

Several participants at the vigil expressed their fears of assault and harassment. They urged others not to back down by removing their hijabs or shaving their beards.

“This city is my city and this country is my country,” Bilal Rahhal, president of the Muslim mosque in London, told the crowd. “Do not allow anyone to allow you to think otherwise because of the color of your skin, your faith, or where you were born.”

Several speakers called the killings acts of terrorism. Mustafa Farooq, executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, called on the government to hold an emergency national summit to end Islamophobia. Trudeau and other politicians have vowed to follow through on action, but have offered no specific plan.

Truck driver Nathaniel Veltman, 20, was charged with four counts of first degree or premeditated murder and one count of attempted murder on Monday. London Police said they were consulting with the Attorney General and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police on possible terrorism charges.

Police said on Monday that the killings were “a planned and premeditated act” intended to target Muslims.

Police did not provide any information on how Mr. Veltman planned his attack. Police searched his apartment near the city’s hockey arena in central London on Tuesday.

Officers also visited an egg farm outside London. The company later released a statement saying Mr. Veltman was a part-time employee.

Although Canada has a reputation for tolerance and has recently taken in Syrian refugees, in its most recent annual report, the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service reported that “the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated xenophobic and anti- authority, many of which can directly or indirectly impact national security considerations.

In 2019, the most recent year for which statistics were available, police reported 1,946 hate crimes in Canada. While there has been a decline in reported hate crimes targeting religion, those against Muslims increased 10% from 2018.

Trudeau’s government has promised to introduce legislation to control hate speech online.

London is a city with distinct social divides. The west side, home to many Muslim families, is dominated by employees of financial services companies, especially insurance companies, and the sprawling, leafy campus of Western University. The east side is home to heavy industry, including a General Dynamics plant that produces armored military vehicles.

In 2017, there was an anti-Islam march in London, organized by the Ontario section of the Patriots of Canada against the Islamization of the West, but it was largely overtaken by a counter-demonstration.

Ms Khan, the family friend, said she did not feel safe wearing a hijab in the east of the city and was regularly harassed by strangers because of her clothes .

Sometimes, Ms. Khan said, she even felt threatened. Once, as she pulled into a parking spot at a shopping mall where she works, a woman got out of her vehicle and yelled at Ms Khan to park elsewhere.

“We don’t need that,” she said. “I have a heart. I have a brain. I get an education like you. Why am I being treated so negatively?

Mr Salih, a member of the city council, said he had also seen an increase in prejudice in the city.

“It’s more and more in our face,” he said. “There is racism and hatred directed against the Muslim community from all angles. “

Relatives of Mr. Afzaal and Ms. Salman in Canada declined to be questioned. But Nawaz Tahir, a lawyer who chairs a local Muslim advocacy group and acts as a spokesperson for the family, said the family wanted Canada to immediately expand anti-hate laws and provide police with powers. additional to monitor online communications, in addition to holding a national hate summit.

“We have to deal with this small minority, not just in London, but across Canada,” Tahir said.

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