The community of Yellowknife gathered in Somba K’e Park on Thursday night to commemorate the Muslim family killed last week in London, Ontario.
On Sunday, Ontario police said, the Afzaal family was attacked by a 20-year-old man who rammed into them with a pick-up truck. Officers investigating the attack said the driver targeted the family because of their faith.
Four of the five family members – three adults and a teen – were killed by the act of terrorism. A nine-year-old boy is in hospital with serious injuries.
The driver has been charged with four counts of murder and one count of attempted murder.
Thursday’s Somba K’e Park vigil was organized by the Islamic Centre of Yellowknife. Nazim Awan, the centre’s chair, spoke passionately to those gathered about the dangers of prejudice.
“Racism, sexism, homophobia, and hatred in general are completely unacceptable,” Awan said. “When that hate spreads to a level of violence and murder, it is a matter of urgent intervention.
“We must come together as Canadians to unite against our common enemies … of hatred, racism, and extremism radicalization. To do so, we need to have open and honest conversations about the history of racism and injustice in Canada.
“While these conversations may be difficult, painful, and uncomfortable, they are necessary.”
The vigil comes less than a week after hundreds of people gathered in Yellowknife to honour the 215 Indigenous children whose remains were found at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School site in BC. In 2019, a similar gathering was held in the city following attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Speaking with Cabin Radio after Thursday’s event, Awan thanked those who came out to show their support.
“The important thing was we did it, lots of people came, and … we shared the message that what happened is unacceptable,” he said.
“We are angry. The federal, territorial, and municipal governments and society have to work together so we don’t repeat this type of incident.”
‘We have to stop this’
Other speakers on Thursday included Dene National Chief Norman Yakeyela, Yellowknives Dene Chief Edward Sangris of Dettah, Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty, and NWT health minister Julie Green.
Attendees wore green ribbons and stickers and held signs that read “Islamophobia Kills,” “Our London Family,” and “End Hate.”
Mona Aida, an attendee at Thursday’s vigil, said she was “shocked” when she heard what happened.
“An innocent family was trying to have a walk in the fresh air outside … it’s not right, what happened to them,” she said.
“We have to stop this – Islamophobia is not good. We shouldn’t judge people because of their religion or anything like that. It’s a free country. We have to live freely.”
Mohamad Ali, vice-president of the Islamic Centre, said events such as vigils and rallies serve as an opportunity for communities to learn and engage with one another.
“I would really encourage people just to gather, for people to get to know each other,” he said.
“Yellowknife is a small community. I don’t know everybody by name, but I can recognize them by face. So that means there is a possibility for people to get to know each other, to love, to respect.
“That is how we can encourage others to join in instead of just sitting back and saying, ‘It’s not in my backyard.’ That’s not going to work.”
The National Council of Canadian Muslims issued an open letter on Thursday following the London attack. It called on the federal government to host a national summit on Islamophobia “convening leaders from all levels of government to chart a path forward for Canada in ending violence against Muslims.”
According to Awan, such a summit and the creation of policies and action plans is sorely needed – especially when it comes to the spread of online radicalization and hate.
“The radicalization happens to people who are not exposed to the real information,” he explained. “They’re exposed to a calculated, targeted type of education … so who has the responsibility to tackle it? The government first, then society. That is the only way we can resolve it.”
Awan called on territorial and municipal governments, schools, and community groups to develop initiatives to educate people about radical hate and xenophobia.
“A family – three generations – have been killed, and a son will have to face every day … that reality of why that happened to him,” Awan said.
“Who can explain it to him? I think the answer is that we, as a society, work together so that tomorrow, we can explain that we are not the same Canada, we have improved. We have created a safe Canada for everybody.”