As thousands gathered in front of Canada’s second-largest mosque in London, Ontario, Reina Perso watched her niece and other children chalk brightly colored hearts all the way.
The Path of Hearts was a tribute to the Afzalis, a local Muslim family who walked around the neighborhood every night greeting neighbors and friends – and who were killed Sunday in what police described as a deliberate attack motivated by Islamophobia.
Members of three generations of the family die when a 20-year-old man plows his pickup in them: Salman Afzaal, 46, his wife Madiha Salman, 44, their daughter Yumna Afzaal, 1
Crowds of mourners – including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and leaders of all political parties in Canada – attended the vigil on Tuesday night to honor the victims and protest the hatred.
Persaud, the daughter of a Sino-Filipino mother and Indian father, said she was there because she had experienced racism in London all her life, as well as all of her patients – two of whom cried in her office earlier in the day. “I’m afraid of them,” she said. “I’m afraid because they can’t be what they want to be out of fear.”
She was surrounded by Canadians of all ethnicities and beliefs. Sikh men handed out bottles of cold water on a hot, humid evening. The blue flag of the Metis nation rose above their heads. A little girl in a printed abaya walked through the crowd with a sign reading, “I am a Muslim. I am proud.”
Many women wore a traditional dress in honor of African women; others wore purple headscarves, Yumna’s favorite color.
The vigil began with a Muslim call to prayer, which – for the first time in Canadian history – was broadcast on national television. A minute of silence was observed at 8:40 p.m., the exact time the Afzaal family was killed during their evening walk.
The suspect, Nathaniel Veltman, is charged with four counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder.
Sunday’s attack spread fear and sadness among Muslim and racist communities, but anger over the country’s failure to curb racism and Islamophobia is also growing.
“Stories like this shatter people’s utopian image of what Canada is,” said Javid Sukera, a psychiatrist and chairman of the London Police Council. “Denial of racism in Canada is pathological. But how many more people have to die before politicians do something? “
Earlier on Tuesday, Trudeau told parliament: “It was a terrorist attack motivated by hatred in the heart of one of our communities. If anyone thinks that racism and hatred do not exist in this country, I want to say the following: How can we explain such violence to a child in a hospital? How can we look families in the eye and say “Islamophobia is not real”? “
Shortly afterwards, however, he told reporters that a law in Quebec banning some government officials from wearing religious symbols such as the hijab did not encourage hatred and discrimination.
The prime minister was greeted with a muffled response at the vigil, but other prominent politicians were met with outright hostility.
Conservative leader Erin O’Toole – who joined 85 members of her party in 2017 to vote against a non-binding proposal condemning “Islamophobia and all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination” – and Ontario Conservative Prime Minister Doug Ford – which was banned before the organization, filmed with members of the Proud Boys – both were booed by the crowd.
“Canada has always been seen as a multicultural society and we have passed it on to the world, but if that level of hatred is happening here, then obviously the environment doesn’t match the words,” said Mohamed Hashim, executive director of the Canadian Race Liaison Foundation. attends the vigil. “Politicians must take responsibility that this is an environment that allows them to exist in Canada, whether on the street or online.”
In London, home to nearly 40,000 Muslims, many 400,000 people said racist micro-aggression was a daily occurrence, but so far no one has felt insecure about walking the streets.
The Afzaali moved to the city from Pakistan 14 years ago and soon became much-loved members of the local community. Salman was a physiotherapist in the care of the elderly. Madiha was a writer and civil engineer on the way to his doctorate.
Yumna was an artist who had already left his legacy at the London Islamic School: a floor-to-ceiling mural with the words “shoot for the moon, even if you miss it, you will land among the stars.” Talat was an artist and teacher, known as the “pillar” of the family, who loved his daily walks together.
After the death of the Afzaal family, Jeff Bennett, a former progressive conservative candidate in Ontario and a resident of London, sat down to apologize for not doing more to counter the racism he witnessed. In a Facebook post, Bennett wrote that the attacker “was raised in a racist city that pretended not to be.”
“I had a strong awareness that terrible things were happening because we allowed it [racism] to last too long, “he said in an interview. “No one wants to admit that they were wrong or responsible, but we have to. We all contribute to systemic racism. Just as we point out the good things in the city, we must also shed light on what we are not doing well. And this applies to every city in Canada. “