Black Lives Matter, Anti-racism rally at Canada Place. Black Lives Matter, Anti-racism rally at Canada Place. Source: GoToVan - Wikicommon / cropped from original / shared under license CC BY 2.0

The act of racist terrorism now being tried in Canada needs to be placed in the context of a deeply Islamophobic society, argues John Clarke

Opening arguments have now been presented in the trial of Nathaniel Veltman. The 22-year
old is accused of deliberately driving down a Muslim family in London, Ontario, on 6 June 2021 ‘Salman Afzaal, 46, his wife Madiha Salman, 44, their 15-year-old daughter Yumna
and her 74-year-old grandmother, Talat Afzaal were all killed in the attack. The couple’s
nine-year-old son was also seriously injured, but survived.’

Veltman faces four charges of murder and one of attempted murder but he is also being
prosecuted under Canada’s Terrorism Act. For this to succeed, ‘the Crown [must] prove
Veltman was motivated by politics, religion or ideology – and that he was intending to
intimidate or strike fear in the public.’ Terrorism charges have generally been laid against
those deemed to embrace ‘Islamist extremism’ and this is ‘one of the first times the law has
been used in the prosecution of someone believed to have been motivated by far-right
ideology.’

The police say that Veltman told them, ‘that he left his home on the day of the attack looking
for Muslims to kill, adding that he was inspired by the 2019 Christchurch shootings in which
a white nationalist killed 51 people.’ They also contend that he had authored a manifesto that
he had entitled ‘A White Awakening’ and that copies of this were found on his computer.

Federal prosecutor Sarah Shaikh provided a sense of the nature of this manifesto when she
told the jury that: ‘He writes about creating a new society, a society where all white people
have a sense of belonging. He also writes about Muslims in all capital letters: “We must
make life very uncomfortable for these people until they are driven out of our countries,
fast.
”’

Detectives who questioned Veltman have reported that he told them, “I don’t regret what I
did. I admit that it was terrorism. This was politically motivated, 100%.” The vehicle he was
driving contained hidden bladed weapons and he was clad in body armour. After the family
had been driven down, Veltman told a taxi driver, “It’s me. It was me that did it. Tell them I
did it and come and arrest me.”

Veltman has now pleaded not guilty to the charges and his trial, being conducted in the city
of Windsor, is expected to take about eight weeks, shorter than originally expected because
the Crown and defence have now agreed upon a shared statement of facts.

Islamophobia in Canada

Writing for Counterfire at the time of these killings, I pointed out that they were only one
particularly horrible manifestation of a much larger trend in Canada. An even more dreadful
act of right-wing terror was carried out in Quebec City, in 2017, when ‘Alexandre
Bissonnette, a young man with ‘“an obsession with the far right, mass killers, Donald Trump
and Muslims,” entered the Islamic Cultural Centre, while people were worshipping, and
opened fire on those inside. Six people died and nineteen more were seriously injured.’

As I also noted in the article, such murderous acts must also be linked to expressions of
hatred and non-lethal assaults on Muslims that occur all across Canada on an ongoing
basis. ‘Muslim women especially face ongoing harassment and physical attacks.’

Certainly, the growth of an overtly racist far-right has played a major role in such incidents.
Last year, the increased strength of this emerging movement found expression in the so-
called ‘Freedom Convoy … the biggest protest organized by the Canadian far right since the
1930s.’ It mobilised ‘a continuum that includes fascists and those who occupy the space
between fascists and mainstream conservatives.’

The dangerous gains being made by the far right, however, are not the whole picture. There
is very justifiable shock and revulsion at the horrible killings in London and the hateful
enormity of the act has prompted the federal authorities to prosecute Veltman vigorously.
Still, suggestions that such acts of racist violence can simply be laid at the door of
dangerous extremists, who go against the norms of an otherwise tolerant society, need to be
challenged. The extremism of people like Veltman is enabled and inspired by significant
sections of the political mainstream.

The present leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, Pierre Poilievre, represents the
ascendency of the party’s right wing. He was a cabinet minister in 2015, when his
government embarked on an ultimately unsuccessful bid to compel ‘Muslim women to
remove the niqab while they recite the oath of citizenship.’ At the time, responding to
charges of Islamophobia, Poilievre refused to ‘succumb to political correctness’ and called
for the initiative ‘to be extended to other areas of federal jurisdiction.’

Quebec has passed legislation, in the form of Bill 21, that prohibits many public-sector
workers, including schoolteachers, from wearing religious symbols. Though it has been
dubiously presented as an even-handed defence of ‘secularism’, a report that was released
last year found that ‘the effects are being most acutely felt by Muslims and, in particular,
Muslim women.’

Miriam Taylor, the lead researcher involved in the study, noted that: ‘We saw severe social
stigmatization of Muslim women, marginalization of Muslim women and very disturbing
declines in their sense of well-being, their ability to fulfil their aspirations, sense of safety, but
also hope for the future.’ She explained that, among those Muslim women who were
surveyed for the report, ‘78 per cent said their feeling of being accepted as a full-fledged
member of Quebec society had worsened’ since the adoption of Bill 21.

War fever

Elected politicians and sections of the media have done much to create a political climate
that produces violent attacks like the one in London and this isn’t confined to the targeting of
Muslims. At present, the Trudeau government is working hand in hand with the Biden
administration to advance an agenda of rivalry with China. This is going over to the
promotion of a mentality akin to war fever that is increasingly targeting Chinese communities
as an ‘enemy within’.

In the last period, we have seen lurid news accounts of ‘Chinese spy balloons’ in the skies
over North America. As Canadian warships challenge China by sailing provocatively into the
Taiwan Strait
, several major newspapers, acting on shadowy intelligence sources, have
promoted allegations that Canadian politicians with Chinese family backgrounds are ‘part of
a Chinese foreign interference network.’ The onset of the pandemic had already produced
an upsurge in anti-Chinese hatred and the present propaganda offensive threatens to
reignite this.

A great deal of the promotion of hatred against Muslims communities has been rooted in the
‘war on terror’ and Western military aggression against countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. The same approach is now being taken, in order to generate support for escalating rivalry
with China. When far-right hatemongers, inspired and emboldened by such a political
climate, engage in acts of violent terror, the mainstream politicians will express shock and
horror and denounce their crimes, but there is a cynical hypocrisy at work in such displays.

If Nathaniel Veltman is convicted in the case that is unfolding in Windsor, he will be sent to
prison, as well he should be. However, the killing of that family in London wasn’t simply the
act of a hate-filled ‘extremist’. The Islamophobic rage that played out that day was the
product of mainstream Canadian society and many of the country’s political leaders are fully
implicated in generating it.

Before you go

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.

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