'This was a terrorist attack,' PM Trudeau says as MPs reflect on Islamophobia after family killed

The alleged hate-motivated killing of four family members in London, Ont. prompted federal political leaders to reflect about Islamophobia in Canada on Tuesday during special speeches in the House of Commons, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calling the killings a “terrorist attack.”

“Lately, a lot of Canadians have been enjoying evening walks to get a bit of fresh air after long days at home during this pandemic. On Sunday, in London, Ontario, that’s what a grandmother, two parents, and two children went out to do… But unlike every other night, this family never made it home,” said the prime minister.

“Their lives were taken in a brutal, cowardly, and brazen act of violence. This killing was no accident. This was a terrorist attack, motivated by hatred, in the heart of one of our communities.”

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet, and Green Party parliamentary leader Elizabeth May also gave speeches mourning the losses, condemning the attack, and calling for change.

According to police, on Sunday evening five members of the Afzaal family were out for a walk when a 20-year-old London, Ont. man driving a pickup truck mounted a curb and hit them. Police say the family was targeted over their Muslim faith.

Salman Afzaal, 46, his wife Madiha, 44, their 15-year-old daughter Yumna and Salman's 74-year-old mother were killed, while Fayez Afzaal, 9, survived the attack and is recovering from “serious injuries," according to a statement released to the media by a family spokesperson.

The driver, Nathaniel Veltman, has been charged with four counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder.

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair led off the government responses during question period on Tuesday, calling the attack “an act of hatred and of terror.”

Trudeau said that he doesn’t see how Canadians can still say racism and hatred don’t exist in this country, when there is a child in a hospital bed who just lost his closest family members.

In his remarks, O’Toole said that nine-year-old Fayez Afzaal deserves a better Canada than the one he saw on Sunday evening and that he needs more than others’ grief.

“Freedom to worship can’t exist without freedom from fear, and every Canadian has a right to that,” O’Toole said, going on to quote a passage from the Qur’an.

Singh, who lived in London, Ont. for five years, delivered impassioned remarks, questioning how many more innocent lives will be taken by hatred and intolerance in this country.

“I love my home. I love this place. But the reality is this is our Canada… Our Canada is a place where you can’t walk down the streets if you wear a hijab, because you will be killed,” Singh said. “The reality is our Canada is a place of racism, of violence, of genocide of Indigenous people, and our Canada is a place where Muslims aren't safe.”

Before the statements in the House of Commons, MPs held a moment of silence for the victims of the attack, which has left Canadians, and particularly members of the Muslim community, reeling. The Senate also observed a minute of silence when its sitting began on Tuesday.

'WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU DIVIDE PEOPLE'

The family statement issued on Monday called for everyone, from politicians to the public, to "stand against hate and Islamophobia" in favour of humanity.

In the last several years, Statistics Canada has documented a marked increase in reported hate crimes, with data from 2019 indicating more incidents targeting the Muslim population.

Throughout the remarks in the House on Tuesday, this was a common thread, with federal political leaders reflecting on the ways Islamophobia has been, as Singh put it, “used for political gain.”

“Politicians have used Islamophobia for political gain. They have. They have used it as a divisive tool, that has to end,” Singh said. “If you have used Islamophobia for political gain, thinking ‘I can divide people and get votes,’ this is a result of it. This is what happens when you divide people. You inflame hatred and people die.”

This, and other killings and violent attacks of Muslims in this country in recent years are examples of how Islamophobia is present in Canada, Trudeau said, adding that while Canadians are outraged by what happened on Sunday, Muslim Canadians are scared.

“It has to stop,” said the prime minister, pledging to do more as a federal government to stamp out hatred online and offline, and protect vulnerable communities and places of worship.

“Words matter. They can be a seed that grows into an ugly, pervasive trend. And sometimes, they lead to real violence. The jokes that are not funny, the casual racism… the polarization we too often see in our public discourse and in our politics. As leaders and as Canadians, we not only have to say: enough is enough, we must also take action,” said Trudeau.

Though, when facing questions from reporters about whether he should be speaking out more strongly against Bill 21 in Quebec which bans public servants from wearing religious symbols at work, Trudeau said that while he disagrees with it, he doesn’t think the bill encouraged hate or discrimination.

“Provinces have the right to put forward bills that align with their priorities,” Trudeau said. “It is for Quebeckers to challenge and defend their rights in court, which they have been doing.

Referencing a contentious motion passed during the last Parliament—motion M-103, which among other things called for the House to condemn Islamophobia—May said that when it was up for debate, MPs from all sides were shown the Islamophobia within Canada.

At the time, 91 MPs voted against the motion, including the majority of the Conservative caucus, including O’Toole, citing freedom of speech concerns.

“If I ever again see a political party try to divide us based on someone wearing a hjiab, let’s call that out,” May said, referencing the 2015 Conservative federal election campaign proposal to prohibit Muslim women from wearing a niqab while taking the oath of citizenship. “Let’s make sure that we say to all of the Islamic community of this country: From the bottom of our hearts, we ask for your forgiveness that we let this hatred live among us.”

Green Party Leader Annamie Paul, who doesn’t have a seat in the House, delivered her remarks from a separate room on Parliament Hill. She called for a national anti-Islamophobia strategy to be developed, separate from the existing Anti-Racism Strategy set up by the federal Liberal government.

“We have to acknowledge that hate has been on the rise in Canada,” she said. “It is the duty of all levels of government and all people, to identify, expose, and root out white supremacist movements, and to ensure that those who promote or disseminate such ideologies know that there will be no safe place, no dark corner, where their beliefs will be allowed to flourish.”

POLITICAL LEADERS ATTENDING VIGIL

O’Toole and Blanchet will be joining Trudeau on the Challenger to fly to London, Ont. to attend a vigil planned for the four family members killed. Singh and Paul will also be travelling to attend in person.

The vigil is scheduled to happen Tuesday night at the London Muslim Mosque, with distancing protocols observed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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

With files from CTV News’ Ryan Flanagan.