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Relative of slain London, Ont., family says public support made him feel less alone

LONDON, Ont. — A man who lost four relatives in an attack in London, Ont., last weekend issued a plea for compassion and openness Saturday as he thanked friends and strangers for helping him shoulder his grief.

LONDON, Ont. — A man who lost four relatives in an attack in London, Ont., last weekend issued a plea for compassion and openness Saturday as he thanked friends and strangers for helping him shoulder his grief.

Speaking at an outdoor funeral service, Ali Islam paid tribute to his niece Madiha Salman, 44, her husband Salman Afzaal, 46, their 15-year-old daughter Yumna Salman and Afzaal's 74-year-old mother Talat Afzaal.

The four family members died last Sunday night while out for a walk after a man in a truck drove them down in what police have called a premeditated attack because they were Muslim. The couple's nine-year-old son, Fayez, was seriously injured and remains in hospital.

Islam praised their "gentle, unassuming" character, and said their deaths marked an "immense" loss for his family and all who knew them.

He expressed gratitude for the public outpouring of support from across Canada and beyond, which he said has "confirmed the potential of absolute innate goodness inside humankind."

"The expressions of raw emotion, the prayers, the quiet tears, the messages of comfort from people we know and from people that are complete strangers -- it has been the first step towards finding a way to heal," he told the crowd of mourners gathered outside a local mosque.

"We are not alone in our grief, our sleepless nights, our survivor's guilt."

Islam said many have asked his family what they can do to help in the aftermath of the attack.

"I ask you to be examples of love and compassion. I ask you to take the time to learn from someone who doesn't look the same as you. I ask you to inspire others with your affection. Be humble, be true. be persistent, be creative, be brave," he said.

"As long as we are alive, the memory of our family will be inside us."

Sheikh Aarij Anwer, acting Imam of the London Muslim Mosque, led the hundreds of mourners in a Salat al-Janazah, an Islamic funeral prayer. 

Before the service, Anwer said he was struck by the outpouring of support his community had received from across Canada.

"That crime committed was a crime committed in the name of hate and the love that we've experienced has allowed us to heal," he said. 

"Love conquers hate is a slogan but we've seen it in action now. We've seen the love conquering hate."

Pakistan's ambassador to Canada also spoke at the service, saying all of Pakistan stands "shoulder to shoulder" with those who lost their loved ones.

"Our hearts are bleeding because of the atrocity that has befallen this wonderful, marvellous family," Raza Bashir said.

Earlier Saturday afternoon, a funeral procession wound its way from the O'Neill Funeral Home to the Islamic Centre of Southwest Ontario. The funeral was held in the centre's parking lot and its soccer fields.

The family was set to be buried at the Islamic Cemetery of London in a private ceremony later Saturday.

Three London police officers in full dress uniform stood at attention as the four hearses arrived at the mosque and saluted as the SUV carrying the family pulled into the parking lot.

Throughout the service volunteers distributed masks and water bottles to the crowd, which was separated by gender. After the hearses left for the cemetery, lawn signs were distributed to mourners that had four white silhouettes of the deceased on a purple background with the slogan "We stand with #OurLondonFamily."

The attack has prompted a discussion over racism in Canada. Calls for a national summit on what to do about Islamophobia continue to grow across the country. 

Citing the shooting at a mosque in Quebec City in 2017 and the stabbing of a man at a mosque in Toronto in 2020, Anwer said he hopes Canadians realize that Islamophobia is a dire issue.

"These things are happening with an alarming frequency but this, I hope, is now the last," the imam said.

Around 8:40 p.m. on Sunday, police allege, a 20-year-old London man veered his black pickup truck onto the sidewalk at an intersection in the city's northwest corner and into the family of five.

Witnesses said the truck was moving at high speed. Police arrested the suspect about five minutes later in a strip mall parking lot seven kilometres away.

The suspect purportedly told a taxi driver in the parking lot to call police because he had killed someone, Yellow London Taxi said.

The cab driver called police and flagged down a passing cruiser for help. Police and witnesses have said the suspect wore something akin to body armour and a military-style helmet. 

Nathaniel Veltman faces four counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder. He is next set to appear in court on Monday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 12, 2021. 

-with files by Paola Loriggio in Toronto. 

John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press