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15 January 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 4:39pm

Canada’s quest for justice over the Iran air crash is a geopolitical mire

The large Canadian-Iranian community is determined that an investigation and apology is only the first step. 

By Aaron Burnett

News that 176 airline passengers – 138 of whom were bound for Canada – lost their lives after an Iranian missile hit Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752 continues to dominate newspaper front pages and lead broadcasts across Canada. The victims had made their homes in places like Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Calgary, Ottawa, Winnipeg, and Halifax. Members of Edmonton’s large, tight-knit Iranian community estimated they had lost 27 people who called the city home – ten of them either students or faculty members at the University of Alberta. Over 50 passengers on the flight were students at Canadian universities. Fifty seven were Canadian citizens. At least three newlywed couples were on board, with one pair having celebrated their wedding with family in Iran only a week before.

Payman Parseyan, a prominent member of Edmonton’s Iranian-Canadian community, spoke to the New Statesman about the day messages started pouring into a Telegram app group of Iranian-Edmontonians with over 1,300 members. “Someone wrote ‘we lost friends on this flight,’” he said, his voice wavering slightly. “I started sending private messages asking ‘who did we lose?’” Soon after, Parseyan found out he knew seven of the passengers.

“It’s a huge tragedy for the entire country, not just the Iranian-Canadian community,” Prime minister Justin Trudeau told reporters. “Families are seeking justice and accountability and they deserve closure.”

In the days immediately after the plane was shot down, shortly after it took off from Tehran en route to Kiev, Trudeau comforted grieving families in Ottawa, spoke at a large Edmonton vigil and gave two major press conferences. “Canada and the world have many questions. Questions that must be answered,” he declared. Yet there was much he didn’t – and perhaps felt he couldn’t – say.

Canada has no formal diplomatic relations with Iran. It cannot recall its ambassador – even if such a sanction would be mostly symbolic leverage – because it doesn’t have one. Conversely, not having an embassy in Tehran complicates both Canada’s participation in the investigation and the process of repatriating victims to their loved ones. Reporters asked if the Trudeau government would act on a 2018 parliamentary vote – one his own Liberal Party supported – listing Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organisation.

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Trudeau largely deflected this and other questions about what sanctions Canada would consider, saying such possibilities were still to be discussed. His top priority, he repeatedly insisted, was to secure access to the crash site in order to conduct a “full, complete investigation.” However, he later took a subtle swipe at both Donald Trump and the Iranian regime. “If there was no escalation recently in the region, those Canadians would be, right now, home with their families,” Trudeau said.

Iranian-Canadian community representatives, including Parseyan, spent the weekend mourning their friends at vigils and giving media interviews around the country, making clear their belief that an investigation and apology was only a first step. “Those who have committed this crime of shooting down a passenger airplane and those who have been responsible in releasing false information must be held accountable,” read a statement from the Iranian Canadian Congress, which also demanded Iran compensate families through restitution – a call the prime minister echoed.

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“I don’t think we’ve felt alone,” Parseyan says, describing the support of fellow Canadians as “overwhelming.” “The nation has collectively united to help us.”

But scepticism is rife among Iranian-Canadian representatives as to how thorough the investigation will end up being. Iran’s aviation authority originally refused to grant black box access to either the plane’s American manufacturer Boeing or to US investigators, before reversing course. Canadian teams are already setting up in Iran, yet there are reports the crash site was bulldozed during the three days the regime originally spent denying it shot down the plane – potentially clearing away crucial evidence. “You can’t have the culprit investigating themselves,” Parseyan says. “It’s highly inappropriate for them to offer other nations an observing role and have themselves leading the investigation. Canada has a bigger vested interest than Iran, Canada had 138 out of 176 passengers – many of those Canadian citizens and many of them future Canadians.”

Aaron Burnett is a Berlin-based journalist specialising in international security, European and Canadian politics