Could the London, Ont. vehicle attack suspect face terrorism charges? What we know

On Jan. 29, 2017, Alexandre Bissonnette walked into the Islamic Cultural Centre in Quebec City, killed six men and wounded 19 others.

It soon emerged that Bissonette had left an online trail of support for far-right and anti-immigration views. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other politicians described the mass shooting as an act of terrorism.

Yet Bissonette was never charged with any terror-related offences. Instead, more than one year after his massacre, he pleaded guilty to six counts of first-degree murder and six counts of attempted murder.

The vehicle attack that left four members of the Afzaal family dead in London, Ont. on Sunday, and Nathaniel Veltman in custody facing four counts of first-degree murder, appears to contain some similarities to the Quebec City mosque shooting.

Again, police have said that they believe the victims were killed because of their Muslim faith. Again, Trudeau and other prominent figures have described the events as a terrorist attack. And while Veltman's opinions are not yet public knowledge, police have said that they have reason to think he was motivated by hatred.

The question, then: Will Veltman face terrorism charges? Or, as was the case with Bissonette, will prosecutors conclude that there is no reasonable prospect of conviction?

London's police chief says his organization has been in contact with the RCMP and prosecutors about the possibility of terrorism charges, and has yet to rule anything in or out.

"The terrorism charge is certainly on the radar," Chief Stephen Williams said Tuesday in an interview with CTV National News.

"It's something we're looking at and considering – but we have to gather the evidence first. We have to be very methodical, and we have to be careful."

THE LATEST ON THE INVESTIGATION

Williams told CTV National News that there is "a lot happening" as dozens of police officers piece together the chain of events that led up to Sunday's attack.

"We will conduct a thorough and complete investigation, and we will ensure that justice is done," he said, noting that police have seized a vehicle, identified "a substantial number" of witnesses, and inquired with businesses near the crash scene about surveillance footage.

Asked if investigators have spoken to nine-year-old Fayez Afzaal, the lone surviving victim of the attack, Williams said that will happen in the future.

"There will be a time for that. Right now, I think it's important that we focus on his healing and his recovery," he said.

Williams said Veltman had only "peripheral, minor involvement" with police in the past, and was co-operative with police when he was arrested. Police have said that he was wearing body armour at the time of his arrest.

One of the main priorities for investigators is to look into Veltman's background, speaking with his friends and family and searching for signs of any online communications.

No evidence has been found to suggest that Veltman worked with anybody else in planning or carrying out the attack, the chief said.

TERRORISM: A LEGAL LOOK

Monte MacGregor, a Toronto-based defence lawyer, said Tuesday that the speed with which police recommended first-degree murder charges could increase the likelihood of a terrorism offence being added to the case.

Because first-degree murder requires proof of planning or deliberation, he told CTV News Channel, police likely had what they considered to be significant evidence Veltman had plotted his alleged actions in advance.

"That tells a lot about the nature of the investigation thus far," he said.

"My thoughts are [that] they would have either had admissions from Mr. Veltman, like he formally confessed to them that 'this is why I did this,' or the police likely moved very quickly to search his computers."

That same evidence of planning and deliberation – whatever it may be – could also help prove a terrorism offence occurred, MacGregor said.

The Criminal Code defines a terrorist act as one that is carried out "in whole or in part for a political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause" and "with the intention of intimidating the public, or a segment of the public."

It allows for a maximum sentence of life in prison. If Veltman is convicted of murder, though, that will be more or less a moot point, as he'll already face a sentence of life in prison with no ability to apply for parole for at least 25 years.

There is an ongoing legal battle involving that 25-year period in cases in which somebody is convicted of multiple murders – and that brings us back to Bissonette.

The mosque shooter was initially sentenced to life in prison with no parole eligibility for 40 years, the longest such sentence in Canadian history.

The sentence was appealed, and Quebec's top court ruled in November 2020 that the ineligibility period should be lowered to 25 years. Last week, the Supreme Court of Canada agreed to hear the Crown's appeal of that decision – meaning Bissonette's sentence could still be adjusted, in a case which could have significant bearing on Veltman's fate should he be convicted.

With files from CTV News National Affairs Correspondent Omar Sachedina

If you need mental health help in the wake of the London, Ont. vehicle attack, support and resources are available here.