Jordan: On what was a terrifying night word that a plane had gone down and Iran seemed at first to be the latest horrible twist in the story of an escalating global conflict.
News Clip: Aside from the Iranian missile strikes on US bases, we’re learning that a Boeing seven three seven passenger plane has crashed any run with 176 passengers and crew on board. Ukrainian president now confirms everyone has been killed in that crash
Jordan: in the minutes and the hours after the first report of a crash, information was scarce. Slowly it became clear that early signs pointed to a tragedy and not an act of war.
News Clip: The breaking news out of Iran, an air disaster that has killed 63 Canadians, one of the worst ever for the loss of Canadian lives. Many of the passengers on board were on the way to Ukraine using Kiev as a transfer point to another final destination. This airline also flies Kiev to Toronto, which could explain the high number of Canadian casualties.
Jordan: As information on the victims trickled out, Canada began to realize that dozens of its citizens were among the dead. At least 63 Canadians, most of them have Iranian descent, and many of them students were onboard. Why did Canadians make up such a disproportionate share of the victims? Why was this flight in particular so popular with Iranian Canadians in the country? What does this unexpected tragedy reveal about the realities of Canada’s decision in 2012 to sever diplomatic relations with Iran and what happens now?
I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, and this is The Big Story. We are publishing it earlier than we usually would, and obviously we wish the reason for doing so was different. Younes Zangiabadi is the research director or the Iranian-Canadian Congress. Hello, Younes.
Younes: How are you?
Jordan: I’m all right, thanks. Um, thank you. For taking the time to talk to us today. I’m sure it’s not easy.
Younes: Yep. That’s a bit unfortunate. Has been a devastating day for many Iranian-Canadians here in Canada, as we all somehow know somewhat to somebody who knows somebody in that place, and it’s been extremely sad for the community today.
Jordan: Well, I mean, that is one of the reasons that, that we reached out to you is can you just tell us for people who. Who don’t know a little bit about the IranianCanadian community here?
Younes: Well the Iranian-Canadian communities, in fact, big community here in Canada of the estimate and by the Canadian government shows that we have around 300,000 to 400,000 Iranian Canadians here in Canada, which constitutes almost 1% of the whole population and the majority of the community and reside in Toronto area in greater Toronto area. But also we have great number of people in Montreal and also Vancouver. And, um, also I can, what I can tell you is that we have many international students who come from Iran to Canada to study at Canadian universities and these groups of people later become permanent residents and later Canadian citizen. So Iran and Canada, uh, Iranian people and Canadian people have had long history, and especially after the revolution when there was a wave of immigrants coming from Iran, Canada was an amazing place to come and was welcoming and that’s why you see many Iranian-Canadians here in Canada.
Jordan: What had the feeling been in the community, I guess, over recent weeks, you know, given, uh, events between the United States and Iran?
Younes: Well, unfortunately the escalation has—the escalation has been taking place for almost a month. And, uh, after the us as a nation of Iran, the top military commander, this even further escalated it. And so yesterday, just few hours before the airplane was crashed, we were all following the news of Iran sending missiles to US bases in the region. So what I could tell you is that most Iranian-Canadians were awake last night following the news, waiting for some response from the United States, and then all of a sudden we heard the crash of the airplane near Tehran, the capital, and people were even more scared thinking that this was part of the American response or something related to the Iran- US escalation, and happened the unfortunately to ordinary people, but so far we haven’t heard anything that relates to this to the tension as Iranian news agencies and some others, including Ukrainian embassy in Iran confirmed that this had nothing to do with that. And, but there is still a joint investigation taking place in Iran by Ukraine and Iran. And we hope tha nothing crazy there comes out of this investigation.
Jordan: I wanted to ask you about that because as you mentioned, people were awake last night, uh, really concerned. I mean, not just, uh, Iranians. Um, everybody was, was waiting on edge and then this happened. How– what is it like, I guess trying to filter out the real news about something like that from all the other stuff that’s online in the middle of something like this?
Younes: Well, what I can tell you is that it’s pretty stressful. It’s stressful to always expect that something’s going to happen that’s going to put people’s lives at risk and people’s safety at risk, and following the Iran-US tensions in the Middle East, especially in Iraq, people were scared that the tensions will kind of be dragged into Iran and now we will face another catastrophic war in the Middle East, and the make no mistake, Iraq and Afghanistan, the US war in Iran and after in Iraq and Afghanistan, is just a picnic compared to war with Iran. So people were really scared. And in the middle of this, we had this crash, which happened to have many Iranian- Canadians inside of the plane. So it was all disaster. I cannot put words into this. And now I know that many Iranian Canadians from students to organizations are putting together, you know, and the vigil for, and for the peoples who lost their lives in this crash.
Jordan: It seemed like there were a disproportionate number of Canadians on that flight to the total number of passengers. Why? Why is that?
Younes: This is mainly because Iranian-Canadians do not have as many options as other nationalities when it comes to choosing the flights that they take, especially after US were in position of sanctions, many major airlines have stopped their flights to Iran, and the choices for Iranians traveling have been limited. And the cost of travel has increased significantly. So for example, when you look at the numbers of students who were on this flight, who unfortunately lost their lives, it’s very, very, very high. And that is because this was one of the cheapest flights from Canada that could take you through Iran. There are, there are few number of numbers of flights. One is from, one is this slide from Canada to Ukraine. It’s from Ukraine to Iran and vice versa, and the other one’s from Canada to Turkey and from Turkey to Iran. The other one’s from Canada to Qatar, from Qatar to Iran, and also there’s one that goes out of Vietnam to Iran, and these are all very, very expensive, especially for students and young people who do not have much income and they’re either on the scholarship or they’re bringing money from Iran to study here, given the devaluation of the currency, I cannot tell you how hard this is for them. So that’s why many people are left out with this option of taking this. But I can guarantee you, and what I’ve been telling all these news organizations and media outlets that have called me today is that if Air Canada or any Canadian airlines establish a direct flight from Canada to Iran, I can guarantee you that everybody would be on the Canadian airline going to Iran.
Jordan: Why is that?
Younes: Because first people rather to have a direct flight and do not want to have long layovers. They don’t want to go all the way to Ukraine and from Ukraine, go to Iran, or they don’t want to go to basically UAE or Qatar passing or flying over Iran territory and land in a country that is Southern part of Iran, and then fly back to the capital, which is, which is just crazy when you think about it, that you cross over the country that you want to land in and because there is no flight and then you have to come back and for not for another hour because there’s no flights and it’s safe for safety reasons. I mean, people rather fly with Air Canada, British Airways, Air France daily, that are popular and are well known for their safety.
Jordan: Can you tell me a little bit about what we’re finding out today about who was on that flight? I don’t mean names or anything, but, but the diverse group of people and what they do and where they’re from?
Younes: Well, they’re highly told you there’s a great number of students, um, and who, who in just back to around four venture holidays or they were coming back and some of them are from UofT. And that’s why Iranian-Canadian students and Iranian students at UofT are having a vigil tonight. For the remembrance, and there were a few students from York University and we heard there were actually a few students who were just accepted to come to Canadian university, but unfortunately never made it. Apart from that, there were some families, one of my, actually one of my good friend’s mom was on that flight and uh, you know, and it was just a diverse group of people on that flight. But the students, I would say, have been the majority of the, of the, eh, the people killed on that flight.
Jordan: What happens in a a tight knit community like yours when, when word of this starts to spread, you mentioned almost everybody knows someone in and you just mentioned who you knew. Um, what’s been going on today?
Younes: It just increases our disappointment and with the Canadian government that has not been responding well to our long-standing demand that we want direct flight from Canada to Iran. And to be honest, Iranian-Canadian Congress have had numbers of meetings with Canadian officials, including former minister of transportation, Marc Garneau about this. And what we’ve been told time and again, is that this is a political and diplomatic issue, and there’s nothing– there’s not much that we can do. And actually this brings me to my next point, which is lack of diplomatic relations with Iran. Today we lost 33 Canadians in Iran and Canada has no embassy in Iran. Not only follow up on what actually happened there, to be on the ground, to get the first-hand information. And to be there by the size of Canadian whose loved ones there were lost today. But what Canada has done is to basically send a message, true out through the statement saying that if you needed anything or if you want to contact us, reach out to our consulate in Turkey. I think this is, this is unbelievable for, uh, for Canada to do. We need Canadian government present in Iran, and not to send messages through other parties and tried to rely on allies to follow up on the situation. Canada should have been, there should have been part of the investigation as, as you mentioned, there’s a great number of Canadians on the flight, but nothing, none of this is happening because of lack of diplomatic relations.
Jordan: Can you explain maybe for somebody who doesn’t follow Iranian-Canadian relations, why Canada doesn’t have an embassy set up there right now?
Younes: Well, since 2012, Harper government in an unprecedented move, expelled the Iranian diplomats from. Canada and, uh, in retaliation, Iran did the same. And, uh, and since then, there have been no diplomatic relations, even though Prime Minister Trudeau promised, uh, in 2015 as part of his election campaign, and that he would be willing and he would be planning to reengage and reestablish diplomatic relations with Iran, but he has not been successful. And that is because of the series of consular problems that Canada faces in Iran, regarding a number of nationals that’s where jailed sometimes, and they were freed after. And so it’s been a tendency, it’s been a bumpy relationship that Iran and Canada have had since 2012 but, eh, but what we believe, especially at their own in Canadian Congress, is that you have diplomatic relations to resolve your issues and lack of diplomatic relations, not talking to your even enemy does not resolve anything. It actually adds to your problems because it limits your access and influence in that country. And today is just one example. When there are nationals who happened to be detained and jailed in Iran, Canada cannot do anything. It has to rely on other countries to follow up on, uh, their under consular issues. And the list goes on.
Jordan: Is there hope, maybe at the ICC, but also in the community that that a tragedy like this will point out all the problems with not having these relations and, and spark change.
Younes: I really hope so. Especially with the minority government, we know that NDP has had a better position when it comes to relations with Iran. They have been vocal about the issues that Canada has with Iran, and the issues that need to be addressed. But at the same time, they believe that it is true diplomatic dialogue that, uh, those, uh, problems could be resolved where it is discussed or reached to some form of compromise. Eh, and given this is a minority government, uh, especially when it comes to foreign policy, I think Liberals and NDP have closer. Eh, they have, you know, not similar, but closer stances on issues. I really hope that this will lead to some form of reengagement, given that Iran recently freed eh, an Iranian-Canadian citizen, and she’s back in Canada.
Jordan: In the coming days, are there ways that uh, Canadians who are going to be hearing the stories of the families impacted by this tragedy? Are there ways that they can help?
Younes: What I would want– well, what I want Canadians to do is to just share their support for the pep people, especially students who lost their loved ones. I know some students have, they wanted their families to come and visit them in Canada, but they lost their families. So now they’re here alone and it’s be nice for them to see Canadians showing their support on TV or in media just like yours. And at the same time, it would be best for Canada, for Canadian government– Canadian people to, you know, raise their voice to Canadian government saying that, you know, it’s good to have diplomatic relations with countries that you disagree with because at the end of the day, it’s the people that become the main victims of political issues between governments, not the governments themselves.
Jordan: And what will you and the ICC be doing? In the next few days, I guess.
Younes: There are two vigil organized. One is by the university of students at UofT, which is tonight. And there is another one organized by us or the community at large, uh, which takes place tomorrow. Where we can, uh, have our community members come in and show support and show sympathy for the pupils who lost their lives in this airplane crash. And we really hope that some of the MPs, including Iranian Canadian MPs, could, uh, participate in this event and, uh, reaffirm Canada’s, uh– Canadian government’s support for the victims.
Jordan: And finally, what would be the first step? I know you mentioned restoring diplomatic relations. What would be the very first step the government could take if that was going to happen?
Younes: Indeed, the first that would be establishing consular services. Unfortunately not only have there been no diplomatic relations named the embassy in Iran, but there’ve been no consular services provided for the Iranian-Canadians. And also, so for example, if you are in Iran, if you want your families to visit, you know, in Canada you have to have them go to Turkey or to third countries, or UAE, to get their visa in order to come to visit you in Canada, and vice versa. If you have any counselors and issues here in Canada, there’s, there’s no service provided here. You have to go to the UN the intersection of Islamic Republic of Iran and have them process your, um, documents or anything constantly related. And the irony is that even the US and Iran known as sworn enemies, where the past 40 years have some kind of consular relations. But when it comes to Canada in 2012 we had even, it didn’t have that. We haven’t had that. And that’s, that’s, that’s really unfortunate for Iran and Canadians who have been the main victims.
Jordan: Younes, thank you so much for taking time for us on a difficult day.
Younes: Yeah. Thank you very much.
Jordan: That was Younes Zangiabadi, the research director for the Iranian-Canadian Congress. That was The Big Story. If you’d like more, we’re at thebigstorypodcast.ca. We are on Twitter at @thebigstoryfpn and of course this podcast, all the other episodes are in your feed, wherever you get your feed, Apple, Google, Stitcher, Spotify, doesn’t matter. I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. Thanks for listening. We’ll talk again on Friday morning.
Back to top of page