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Canada struggles with anti-Muslim bias after family killed in truck attack

OTTAWA – As coronavirus restrictions still exist in large parts of Canada, many families have taken up going out on evening trips together. Sunday, however, a pleasant walk became the site of a deadly attack by a motorist who used his truck to kill four members of a family in London, Ontario and injured a boy who is now orphaned. They were targeted, police said because of their Muslim beliefs.

Along with grief, the deaths have led to anger and demands for government action against violence and violence against Muslims.

“Even after this, there are still people who say that Islamophobia does not exist,”

; said Mohamed Salih, a member of London City Council. “The challenge and a reality we have to face is that all too often there is Islamophobia in our city. It’s something we’ve known for far too long. ”

On Tuesday night, the province of Ontario temporarily lifted rules on a pandemic that bans large gatherings so thousands of people can gather for a memorial outside the Muslim mosque in London to remember the Afzaal-Salman family. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attended.

Salman Afzaal, 46, was a physiotherapist working in a long-term nursing home. 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 was hospitalized with serious injuries but expected to recover.

Sir. Afzaal’s mother, Talat Afzaal, 74, was also killed during the attack.

Sir. Afzaal and Mrs. Salman, who arrived as permanent residents of Canada in 2007, were active in the local mosque and volunteered for several organizations.

Ms. Salman had a master’s degree in engineering in Pakistan, where she worked on a hydropower project for three years. After obtaining a master’s degree from Western University in London, she completed work on her doctorate.

Jason Gerhard, the professor who oversaw Ms. Salman’s master’s work, said in an email that her research was about decontamination of soil and groundwater that had been soiled by toxic chemicals. Her “innovative experiments,” he said, showed that vegetable oil could be used in a process developed at the university to clean up chemicals in soil. The work, he added, has been commercialized and used to clean up polluted industrial plants.

Her husband, Mr. Afzaal, worked mainly at two long-term care homes in rural areas outside London. Jeff Renaud, administrator of the Ritz Lutheran Villa in Mitchell, said Mr Afzaal was continuing to get into the whole pandemic when many other workers stopped.

“He helped people at the end of their lives – your mothers and fathers and grandmothers and grandfathers – tried to give them a sense of maintaining mobility and independence for as long as possible,” Renaud said. “He was really just a huge soul.”

Yumna, the daughter, was a student at Oakridge Secondary School, the Thames Valley District School Board said in a statement. The text of a mural she painted inside the local mosque reads: “Shoot for the moon, if you miss, you 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.

Sir. Afzaal and Mrs. Salman had relatives in London and elsewhere in Ontario and were especially close to a nearby family, the Khans, who also emigrated from Pakistan. Yasmin Khan said she, along with her parents and four siblings, came to think of the Afzaal-Salman family as relatives.

“They found family here, and we found family here through them, so we all became sisters and brothers,” said Mrs. Khan. “They were amazing, they were friendly. They were not the type to injure an animal, a bug or anything like that. ”

Under guard held in hot and humid conditions, Mr Trudeau said Canadians had again broken their pact to take care of each other when it came to their Muslim members.

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

Several speakers on the alert spoke of their fear of attack and harassment. They urged others not to return by removing their hijabs or shaving their beards.

“This city is my city and this country is my country,” Bilal Rahhal, chairman of the London Muslim Mosque, told the crowd. “Never allow anyone to allow you to think otherwise because of the color of your skin, your beliefs, or where you were born.”

Several speakers characterized the killings as an act of terrorism. Mustafa Farooq, executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, called on the government to hold a national emergency meeting to end Islamophobia. Sir. Trudeau and other politicians promised to follow up with actions, but offered no specific plans.

The driver of the truck, Nathaniel Veltman, 20, was charged with four counts of first-degree or intentional murder and a number of attempted murders on Monday. London police said they were consulting the Attorney General and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police on possible terrorist charges.

Police on Monday said the killings were “a deliberate, deliberate act” aimed at Muslims.

Police have not provided any information on how Mr. Veltman planned his attack. On Tuesday, police officers searched his apartment near the city’s hockey arena in central London.

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

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

In 2019, the most recent year for which statistics were available, police reported 1,946 hate crimes in Canada. While there was a decrease in reported hate crimes targeting religion, they increased against Muslims by 10 percent from 2018.

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

London is a city with clear social divisions. The west side, where many Muslim families live, is dominated by employees of financial services companies, especially insurance, and the scattered, green campus of Western University. The eastern side is home to heavy industry, including a General Dynamics facility that erupts armored military vehicles.

In 2017, there was an anti-Islam march in London held by Ontario’s chapter of the Patriots of Canada Against the Islamization of the West, but it was much surpassed by a counter-protest.

Mrs Khan, the family friend, said she felt insecure wearing a hijab on the east side of town and that she was regularly harassed by strangers over her clothes.

At times, Ms. Khan said, she even felt threatened. Once as she was pulling into a parking lot at a mall where she works, a woman got out of the vehicle and yelled at Ms. Khan to park somewhere else.

“We do not need this,” she said. “I have a heart. I have a brain. I’m getting an education just like you. Why am I being treated so negatively? ”

Sir. Salih, a city council member, 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 there is hatred directed at the Muslim community from all angles.”

Afzaal and Mrs Salman’s relatives in Canada refused to be interviewed. But Nawaz Tahir, a lawyer who chairs a local Muslim group of lawyers and acts as the family’s spokesman, said the family wanted Canada to immediately extend anti-hate laws and give police additional powers to monitor online communications beyond having a national hate meeting.

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

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