Warning: This story contains distressing details:
A judge is hearing lawyers’ arguments today on whether the actions of a London, Ont., man convicted of running over and killing four members of a Muslim family and injuring another meet the legal definition of an act of terrorism.
After a 10-week trial in Windsor’s Ontario Superior Court, Nathaniel Veltman was convicted in November of four counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder in the truck attack on the Afzaals on June 6, 2021.
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. A boy who was nine years old at the time survived, and was among dozens of people who gave victim impact statements earlier this month when the convicted killer’s sentencing hearing began.
Justice Renee Pomerance will make a finding of facts when she hands Veltman his sentence, which is expected to happen at a later date. As part of the sentencing, Pomerance will determine whether or not the attack constituted terrorist activity, as the Crown has alleged.
Community and family members have called for the attack to be formally labelled as terrorism, arguing it would send a strong message that might deter others from carrying out hate-based attacks. 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.
During the police investigation and in Veltman’s testimony, it was revealed he followed a white nationalist ideology and specifically intended to target Muslims that day.
Defence will oppose terrorism charge
Also during the trial, the issue of Veltman’s mental disorders was raised both during his testimony and by a forensic psychiatrist.
The convicted killer’s lawyer, Christopher Hicks, said he will argue against the terrorism designation. Earlier this month, Hicks told CBC News the 23-year-old’s fragile mental state made it impossible for him to form the intent to carry out the attacks to achieve any specific political end.
“We’re going to hope to persuade the judge that this was not an act of terrorism, that it was an act that was predicated on his mental deficits,” said Hicks. “So we’re going to say that his mental state was such that he didn’t form the intention to intimidate the public, which is an aspect of the terrorism charge.”
With the conviction of first-degree murder, Veltman is guaranteed a life sentence with no chance of parole for 25 years. Adding the terrorism designation won’t add to the length of his sentence, but could be a factor in his future parole board applications.
Barbara Perry is director of the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism at Ontario Tech University. She said the judge’s decision on the terrorism question 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.”
Perry said the question of whether Veltman’s crimes amount to terrorism is interesting because he wasn’t affiliated with any particular group.
“That’s been something that’s been important in previous trials around terrorism-related events,” she said.
Also, this will be the first time terror charges are being considered under Canadian law against someone following a white nationalist ideology.
“It’s a very important symbolic message that is sent to the Muslim community and family that has been so affected by these murders,” Perry said.