Murder-terror trial of man accused in attack on Muslim family in London, Ont., starts in Windsor

Just over two years after a fatal attack on a Muslim family in London, the trial of the man facing murder and terror charges begins this morning with jury selection in another southwestern Ontario location, Windsor.

The Afzaals were out for an evening walk in suburban London on June 6, 2021, when they were struck by a vehicle. Yumnah Afzaal, 15, her parents Madiha Salman, 44, and Salman Afzaal, 46, and family matriarch Talat Afzaal, 74, were killed. A nine-year-old boy survived. 

Nathaniel Veltman, 22, was arrested in the hours following the attack. He’s charged with four counts of first-degree murder, one count of attempted murder and terrorism counts.

People in London are preparing themselves for what may come out of the trial, which is expected to last three months with Superior Court Justice Renee Pomerance presiding.

“We know for a fact that this is going to be very, very challenging. Very difficult things are going to come out that are going to be traumatizing,” said Imam Abd Alfatah Twakkal, a faith leader. “We want to ensure that community members take care of themselves so that they don’t end up taking on more than they can handle.”

Early this year, a judge approved the move of the trial to Windsor, about 200 kilometres west of London. Reasons for the relocation are covered under a publication ban.

London, Ont., Imam Abd Alfatah Twakkal says the trial is likely to bring up difficult emotions. (Kate Dubinski/CBC)

In a case involving terror charges, the Crown must prove an accused committed the act beyond a reasonable doubt and was motivated by a “political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause.”

“That’s what terrorism is all about — this form of influence that will be so negative that other people will be scared. It’s about wishing to impose violence by terror or intimidation,” said Gilles Levasseur, a University of Ottawa law professor. 

Assessing trial’s impact

Nawaz Tahir, who heads Hikma Public Affairs, an advocacy group for London and area Muslims, expressed concern about the nature of the trial.

“We have to appreciate that the vast majority of our neighbours and our community are peace-loving people that stand with us,” Tahir said  “Unfortunately and sadly, I think it is a concern that when you have a trial like this, it may draw that kind of hate out into the open.” 

But he also noted the trial is an important step in the legal process. 

“Four people were killed — four people who were near and dear in our community, and one more injured. We look at this trial as a society’s and system’s way of holding somebody accountable.” 

A man stands in a mosque looking at the camera.
Nawaz Tahir is with Hikma, an advocacy group for London and area Muslims. He says the trial is an important step in the legal process. (Kate Dubinski/CBC)

Canadians rallied around the Muslim community in the weeks following the attack, but stories of Islamophobia also emerged, a reckoning that led to political promises and changes.

The trial’s start will be bringing difficult emotions to the surface, Tahir said. 

“I think there’s a lot of angst in the community. You think you have grieved something that happened over two years ago, and then a trial comes along and it brings back the reliving of the trauma, the pain, the anger that we all felt in the immediate aftermath of the incident.” 

Proceedings will be livestreamed

Some members of the London community may travel to Windsor for the trial, which is expected to begin in earnest next week; others will watch from an overflow courtroom in London that will be airing a livestream of the proceedings, Tahir and Twakkal said. 

“This is going to be bringing back a lot of different raw emotions for our community,” Twakkal said. “At the end of the day, we can’t live our lives in a state of constant fear. We have to have a sense of vigilance, of taking precautions, but at the same time, we can’t shut ourselves behind our doors, in our homes, out of fear that things like this will happen again.” 

Nathaniel Veltman, 20, appeared in Ontario Superior Court via video link from the Elgin Middlesex Detention Centre on Monday, June 14, and was charged with terrorism offences.
Nathaniel Veltman, 22, is charged with four counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder, along with related terror counts. (Sketch by Lauren Foster-MacLeod)

Tahir said the trial is part of the healing process.

“In our society, we have the right to a fair trial and we respect that. Even though in our hearts we may feel something different, we appreciate that the justice system has to do its thing.” 

Levasseur said all efforts have been made to ensure a fair trial.

“The key is the impartiality of the jury members,” he said. “We want people to decide not on emotions, but on the facts that are presented in the courtroom.” 

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