WINDSOR, Ont. — The man facing terror-related murder charges in the deaths of four members of a Muslim family in London, Ont., pleaded not guilty on Tuesday, as jury selection for his trial started in Windsor, Ont.
Nathaniel Veltman is accused of deliberately hitting the Afzaal family members with his truck as they were out for a walk on the evening of June 6, 2021. He has been charged with four counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder.
Standing next to the accused as the court registrar read the charges, defence lawyer Christopher Hicks entered not guilty pleas on Veltman's behalf.
Veltman, who wore a long-sleeve white shirt and black pants in court, was sitting quietly between his defence lawyers Hicks and Peter Ketcheson during the jury selection process.
Jury selection was set to continue on Wednesday for the trial that is expected to last 12 weeks.
Superior Court Justice Renee Pomerance ruled last year that a change of venue is warranted in the case, moving the trial from London to Windsor.
The reasons for that decision, as well as the evidence and arguments presented in court, cannot be disclosed due to a publication ban.
Salman Afzaal, 46, his 44-year-old wife Madiha Salman, their 15-year-old daughter Yumnah and her 74-year-old grandmother, Talat Afzaal, were killed in the attack. The couple's nine-year-old son was also seriously hurt but survived.
Pomerance said the Crown is alleging that Veltman, who was 20 at the time of his arrest, was motivated by extremist right-wing views associated with white supremacy when he intentionally drove his truck over a curb to strike the Muslim family members.
None of the allegations has been proven in court.
Leaders of the National Council of Canadian Muslims and the Muslim community in London, Ont., said community members are hoping justice will be served in the trial.
Speaking to reporters outside the building of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in Windsor, chair of the London Council of Imams Abd Alfatah Twakkal said the attack ended the precious lives of four individuals from three generations in one family.
He called the attack an act of senseless hatred, violence and terrorism.
"Since that fateful day, June 6, 2021, our community has been shown much love, respect and support coming from the vast majority of people and we will forever be grateful for that," he said.
"Our hope is that we can continue to heal as a community and will achieve some level of closure at the conclusion of this trial," he added.
Aasiyah Khan, the chief operating officer of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, said Canadian Muslims have been the target of several hate-motivated attacks.
"We look forward to seeing how our court system will send a message that all Canadians should be protected from terrorism, no matter the ethnicity or ideology of the attacker," she said.
"It is time for our country as a whole, from federal to local levels of government, to help stamp out anti-Muslim hate.
"We know this form of terror does not materialize, as it did in London, without inspiration and an infrastructure of hate," she said. "That needs to be dismantled, whether it be online, in discourse and in policy that frames Muslims as 'the enemy.'"
The attack on the Afzaal family sent waves of shock, grief and fear across Canada and spurred ongoing calls for measures to combat Islamophobia in the country.
After the attack, the National Council of Canadian Muslims released a list of recommendations to fight anti-Muslim hate across Canada, including calling on the federal and provincial governments to commit to anti-Islamophobia strategies in education and provide resources to fight anti-Muslim hate.
The federal government hosted a summit on Islamophobia in July 2021 to hear Muslim Canadians' ideas and insights on how Ottawa can stop attacks targeting their community.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed in January journalist and human rights advocate Amira Elghawaby as Canada’s first special representative to combat Islamophobia, to serve as an adviser and expert as the federal government works to fight religious intolerance and systemic racism.
A mural featuring a painting by Yumnah Afzaal is now the centrepiece of a permanent memorial at the site of the attack, at the intersection of Hyde Park Road and South Carriage Road.
The City of London has also dedicated a garden to the Afzaal family.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 5, 2023.
Maan Alhmidi, The Canadian Press