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A woman wearing a hijab stands next to a destroyed street sign.
Mourners visit the site where a Muslim family of five was deliberately run over by a driver on June 6, 2021. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Brett Gundlock)

Was the London attack against a Muslim family terrorism? Legally, it’s not that simple

Issues of hate-motivated violence, Islamophobia and domestic terrorism have again been thrust into the centre of Canada’s public discourse. The June 6 incident of a pickup truck driver targeting a Muslim family in London, Ont., is not being considered a motor vehicle accident – it is being treated as an intentional act.

While the attacker has been called a terrorist by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, authorities have not yet laid terrorism charges. Past hate-motivated attacks in Canada have included mass shootings and vehicular ramming attacks. These have not been treated as terrorism under Canada’s Criminal Code.

Even when an attack appears to be terrorism, legally labelling it as such is not that simple.

Read more: Muslim family killed in terror attack in London, Ontario: Islamophobic violence surfaces once again in Canada

After the attack

London’s Muslim residents, along with Canada’s larger Muslim community, are grieving. A public vigil in London on June 8 brought out thousands of mourners to a local mosque. Funeral plans are being made for the victims of the attack, who are tragically all from the same family.

The attacker is in police custody as the investigation continues. At this point, the attacker is not being held under terrorism charges but under four counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder.

Under the Canadian Criminal Code, murder in the first degree is defined as a planned and deliberate act. During the apprehension of the London attack suspect, police were able to decide relatively quickly that murder charges were warranted. Investigators have said that evidence exists to indicate it was a premeditated act motivated by hate, but at this point police have not revealed what information led them to that conclusion.

Global News considers whether terrorism was involved in the London incident.

Advantages and disadvantages of terrorism charges

If in the future, Crown prosecutors were to add terrorism offences to the existing murder charges, the arguments for treating the attack as terrorism would likely be based on some of the same evidence used to establish the first-degree murder charges.

Legal experts suggest that during the first week after the attack, it’s probably too early for terror charges because investigators need time to gather sufficient evidence of motives on which to base terrorism offences.

An advantage of laying terrorism charges now would be to send a strong message that the London attack will be treated as what it is perceived to be by many: an act of terror.

Perhaps those Canadian Muslims who are still living in fear after the attack would be comforted by the strong condemnation of calling the vehicular attack terrorism. Politicians would be able to curry favour in the impacted community by invoking terrorism. Also, quickly defining the act as terrorism may serve as a deterrent to those contemplating future copycat attacks.

An artist sketch of a video court appearance with the accused, a justice of the peace and lawyer represented
In this artist’s sketch, Nathaniel Veltman — accused of deliberately running over and killing four members of a Muslim family in London, Ont. — makes a video court appearance as Justice of the Peace Robert Seneshen (top left) and lawyer Alayna Jay look on. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Alexandra Newbould )

A disadvantage of laying terrorism charges right now is that there is a very high bar for evidence and investigation standards required to prove a terrorism motive. The findings of an empirical study of terrorism prosecutions in Canada suggest that while terrorism has not been impossible to prove, such cases raise a host of complex questions for the courts.

Similar past attacks were not labelled as terrorism

In 2017, six men were killed and five others seriously wounded when a shooter opened fire inside a Québec City mosque. Immediately after the mass shooting in a place of worship, questions of Islamophobia and terrorism were present.

The shooter was sanctioned with six sentences of 25 years concurrently for the murder charges. Terrorism charges did not come into play.

In 2018, 10 people were killed and 16 injured when a man rammed a van into pedestrians on Toronto’s Yonge Street. Questions of gender-based violence — the attacker targeted female pedestrians — and terrorism were raised immediately after the attack.

In the end, the perpetrator was found guilty of 10 counts of first-degree murder and 16 counts of attempted murder, with sentencing yet to be determined. Again, terrorism charges did not come into play.

Read more: Toronto van attack: Guilty verdict, but Canada still needs to tackle ideological violence

The spectre of domestic terrorism

If the London attack were to be immediately called an act of terrorism by the legal system, such an action would provide relief for many persons. One outcome of the London vigil held to memorialize the victims is that fear and anxiety are being replaced with calls for action.

Terrorism is a powerful motivator for public action. After a terrorist van attack in Barcelona in 2017, not “letting the terrorists win” became a rallying cry among the city’s residents.

The calls for action in the wake of the London attack must be met with tangible steps to counter Islamophobia and measures to redouble defences for all marginalized communities in Canada that are threatened by violent extremism.

Whether the London attack is legally treated as terrorism by the Canadian legal system, it’s clear that the spectre of domestic terrorism has once again reared its ugly head.

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