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Canada’s Darkness and Light in Iran Canada’s Darkness and Light in Iran

Canada’s Darkness and Light in Iran

Susan Korah finds Canadians of Iranian origin heartened by responses to the downing of Flight 752 – but critical of Ottawa’s approach broader to Tehran.

Susan Korah
4 minute read

It was a catastrophe of heartbreaking human loss and complex political ramifications—perhaps the greatest tragedy that has befallen Canadians since the Air India bombing of 1985.

Minutes after it took off from Imam Khomeini International Airport, Ukrainian Airlines Flight 752 plummeted to the ground, leaving along with the debris of the doomed aircraft, a graveyard of lost lives, and the traumatized friends and families of 172 people. Of these were 57 Iranian Canadians forced to, mainly due to the absence of direct flights, fly to Kiev, and then catch connecting flights to Canada.

Out of this complex devastation and unfolding political drama, two strands stand out.

First is the silver lining in the darkest of clouds to hang over the heads of so many Canadian families for years to come. Canada—in terms of its political leadership and public—has come a long way since 1985 in embracing inclusivity and diversity, and in recognizing all Canadians, regardless of ethnic origin, as members of our national family.

This, in sharp contrast to the Air India explosion, which was viewed as a distant tragedy that happened to “foreigners,” when in fact many who perished were Canadian citizens.

Several Iranian Canadians have expressed their appreciation for the outpouring of sympathy and support they have received from the entire country, standing in solidarity with them as fellow citizens in their hour of grief. 

Professor Chandrima Chakraborty of McMaster University has conducted extensive research on the 1985 tragedy. 

“The difference in government, media and public response to the Tehran crash makes me hopeful that we have learned from the Air India bombing,” said Chakraborty.

“The victims (of the 1985 crash) were not only those who died in the plane crash, but also those who had to live with this loss and, in addition, struggle to claim their place as Canadians,” she said. She noted that they spent 25 years pressing for a public inquiry, which released its final report in 2010. But her hope for Canada to learn from the Air India tragedy has been fulfilled.

Human rights activist and former Miss World Canada, Nazanin Afshin-Jam, said she has been amazed “by the genuine sorrow felt by Canadians across the country and their desire to support the victims.”

“As an Iranian Canadian it has been very heartwarming to see the level of care and number of vigils held to honour those who died. Schools, universities, workplaces and all levels of government have gone out of their way. And it has been appreciated and noticed.”

Pegah Salari, coordinator of the University of Alberta memorial ceremony for victims, expressed similar sentiments. 

“I’m Canadian and I feel loved and supported. Never have I felt such a sense of belonging as I do now, in all the 14 years I’ve been in Canada,” she said.

Iranians have also expressed gratitude to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for the empathetic way in which he has handled the human aspect of the tragedy, though not necessarily the political dimensions of Canada’s relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Bob Rae, former interim leader of the Liberal Party—appointed to look into the Air India explosion— revealed on CBC that he was the first person Trudeau consulted on how to deal with the recent tragedy. 

He advised Trudeau that, unlike with the Air India bombing being viewed as something that happened to “other people,” (then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney sent condolences to India’s prime minister for the loss of “his” people), this must be handled as a national tragedy, and the families of victims treated as “our” people. 

Iranian Canadians have also expressed approval of the way in which the Canadian government is pressing for a participatory role in the crash investigation, and in offering consular and other support services to the families of victims, left with the agonizing task of bringing their loved ones’ remains home.

The second thread that emerges from this multi-stranded story is that all this gratitude and appreciation has not muted the criticism of some of Iranian Canadians for Canada’s weak-kneed handling of its relations with the Islamic Republic, and its failure to stand up to the regime, which is notorious for brutally suppressing the human rights of its citizens.

As seen in the news, furious crowds demanding the ousting of the regime took to the streets of Tehran following its leader’s disclosure that it had shot down flight 752 “by mistake.” Although, they indirectly blamed the US government for intensifying tensions with the killing of Qasem Soleimani, commander of the IRGC (Islamic Republic Revolutionary Guard).

Several Iranian Canadians share the fury of their compatriots in Tehran, and see Soleimani as a tyrant responsible for “crimes against humanity,” as Nazanin Afshin-Jam put it.

They would like to see stronger Canadian support for their quest for freedom from the regimes’ oppression. 

“I agree with the steps that the government has taken so far in demanding participation in investigations surrounding the crash and supporting grieving families. However, I have been disappointed with Trudeau’s weak and indecisive foreign policy vis-a-vis the Islamic Republic of Iran in general,” said Afshin-Jam, citing Trudeau’s failure to list the IRGC as a terrorist entity.

“Iranians expect more from the leader of Canada, a country they greatly admire,” she added. 

Afshin-Jam has words of advice for Canadians, who she feels can have a role in further supporting human rights-seeking Iranians.

“They (all Canadians) can start by pressuring the Trudeau government to implement the listing of the IRGC as a terrorist entity; pressure them to exercise the Magnitsky Act by imposing asset freezes on regime officials, and travel bans to prevent those implicated in human rights abuses from entering Canada,” she said.

Others are critical of Canada’s immigration system, which they say make it too easy for supporters of the regime to enter Canada as immigrants.

One of such critic is Shabnam Assadollahi, longtime Iranian Canadian human rights activist who before immigrating to Canada spent time for her activism in an Iranian prison. Another is Eghbal Kayadan, editor of Irankhabar, a weekly Iranian community newspaper in Calgary. 

“Canada should not allow supporters of the regime to be here and work for the regime,” Kayadan said, citing the example of some Iranian Canadians who openly mourned Soleimani’s death. 

Iran is going through a turbulent phase in its history. But Iranians will be celebrating Nowruz (Persian New Year), in March, symbolizing the arrival of a bright new year, leaving behind the darkness of winter.

Canadians can play a strong role in helping them transition from the long winter of their discontent to a glorious summer of peace and freedom.

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