Warning: This story contains distressing details.
His voice wavering, the man convicted of killing four members of a Muslim family and leaving a fifth orphaned and injured in 2021 stood before a packed London, Ont., courtroom and said he was sorry — an apology that was rejected by relatives of the Afzaals.
Nathaniel Veltman’s sentencing began earlier this month with two days of victim impact statements and continued Tuesday with legal arguments over whether the June 6, 2021, truck attack meets the legal definition of terrorism.
The convicted man also was allowed to speak after Crown and defence lawyers made their cases.
“I want to take this opportunity to express my regret for the loss of the Afzaal family,” the 23-year-old said, reading from a piece of paper.
“Over the course of the days, months and years following June 6, I have not fully grasped but I have seen the extent of the pain and suffering that my actions have caused. This was most evident this month during the victim impact statements.
“I cannot undue this pain and suffering. I cannot turn back time. … I plan to take every opportunity available to me to better myself.”
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 survivor was among dozens of people who gave victim impact statements, in which many detailed the fears they now feel of walking down the street.
After a 10-week trial in Windsor’s Ontario Superior Court, the jury took about six hours to convict him of four counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder.
On Tuesday, relatives of the Afzaals said the convicted killer’s apology came too late and rang hollow.
“It would be a failure for anyone to believe this is an apology — this is one more strategy in a series of ploys that have not stopped for two and a half years,” said Ali Islam, Madiha’s uncle. “It comes from a convicted killer who has had ample opportunity to confess.
“If he was truly sorry we would never have been here for this needless trial,” and he wouldn’t fight the terrorism consideration, Islam said.
“He used violence and killed three generations, including a child, to intimidate an entire segment of the Canadian population.”
This case is the first time terror charges are being considered under Canadian law against someone following a white nationalist ideology. To meet the Criminal Code’s definition of terrorism, the judge must determine the attack on the Afzaals was carried out to further a political, religious or ideological cause.
Superior Court Justice Renee Pomerance will make a finding of facts when she hands Veltman his sentence on Feb. 22, and will determine whether or not the attack constituted terrorist activity.
Terrorism or not? Here are both sides’ arguments
On Tuesday, the Crown 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.
Alongside the four mandatory life sentences he faces for the November murder convictions, Crown attorney Sarah Shaikh asked Pomerance to give him a concurrent life sentence for attempted murder.
The defence has asked for a 10-year sentence on the attempted murder charge, telling the judge that anything more would amount to “vengeance.”
“The offender wanted to make Muslims fearful of being in Canada, fearful of going to the park, the mosque, and living their lives. He wanted to drive this fear in Muslims and instil so much fear that Muslims would leave the country,” Shaikh said.
The convicted killer’s manifesto, titled “A White Awakening” and found on his computer, is “a comprehensive political and ideological justification for a white uprising and rebellion against non-whites, particularly Muslims,” Shaikh argued.
“There should be no doubt about the offender’s motivation to terrorize Muslims.” A life sentence is the only appropriate one for the attempted murder, she added.
“This attempted murder was committed in the context of a mass murder and that cannot be ignored. The offender is a mass murderer. The offender tried very hard to kill all the members of the family. He failed to kill [the young boy] only by luck.”
In arguing against the terrorism designation, defence lawyer Christopher Hicks said his client was not motivated by a particular ideology.
“He did hold extreme right-wing beliefs. These were evident when considering his testimony. But the question is whether he adhered to an ideology and if he committed the crime to intimidate a segment of the population. We say that the Crown did not prove that he did.”
During the trial, the issue of Veltman’s mental disorders were raised both during his testimony and by a forensic psychiatrist.
Hicks said Tuesday his client suffered from a variety of mental ailments, and “A White Awakening” was the product of a “young man living in a studio apartment making notes to himself, with no plans to disseminate it.”
“It’s really quite tolerant,” he said about the manifesto, a statement that raised eyebrows and gasps from the public gallery.
Pomerance, however, questioned Hicks’s argument, saying, “Are you suggesting that this is generally a very neutral document that doesn’t advocate violence of any kind?” before asking the lawyer if he believes his client committed a hate crime.
After a 12-second pause, Hicks responded, “I think this was a planned and deliberate murder of people of a certain race. On June 6, 2021, it seems he had Muslim people on his mind.”
His client’s beliefs, however abhorrent, don’t form an ideology, Hicks insisted.
Adding the terrorism designation wouldn’t add to the length of his life sentence, but could be a factor in his future parole board applications.
Before Tuesday’s hearing, Barbara Perry, director of the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism at Ontario Tech University, said the judge’s decision is important because it will help “set the standard” of what constitutes terrorism in such attacks.
“One would hope we wouldn’t have more cases like this, but undoubtedly we will in the current climate,” she said. “It’s going to be important to more fully define what the standard is for determining whether a murder is motivated by terrorism.”