The U.S. response to Iran killing 176 people when it shot down a Ukrainian airliner last week has been relatively quiet. President Donald Trump largely distanced himself from the incident, Democrats haven’t turned it into a talking point and cable news coverage has mostly moved on to impeachment.
The downing of Flight 752 has been a more potent issue in Canada, where 138 passengers were heading after a connection in Ukraine. A total of 57 Canadians died in the crash, creating a national tragedy and prompting widespread outrage at not only Iran but also the Trump administration.
Community leaders and politicians have demanded a full accounting of what led to the plane being shot down after it took off from Tehran’s airport and have vowed that Iran will be held accountable and compensate for the losses. But there has also been frustration and resentment at the Trump administration’s escalation of tensions with Iran. After a U.S. airstrike killed an Iranian military commander Jan. 3, Iran retaliated Jan. 8 with missile strikes at Iraqi bases. Iran later said it was braced for the U.S. reaction to that attack when its military mistakenly shot down the commercial airliner.
“All immediate blame lies with the Iranian government. Nobody is exonerating them at all,” said Mehrdad Ariannejad, a community activist and CEO of the Tirgan cultural organization. “But the reason we’re here is because of the tension, is because we were headed towards war.”
Several prominent Canadians have criticized the U.S. for its role in the tensions preceding the crash, including CEO Michael McCain of major meat processor Maple Leaf Foods who used the company’s main Twitter account to condemn Trump. Canadians died because of a “narcissist in Washington” who “tears world accomplishments apart; destabilizes region,” McCain tweeted, calling the downing of the plane the result of irresponsible and dangerous U.S. actions.
“Canadians needlessly lost their lives in the crossfire, including the family of one of my MLF colleagues (his wife + 11 year old son),” McCain said. “We are mourning and I am livid.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has received a boost in public support following the crash, also blamed tensions between the U.S. and Iran for ultimately leading to the tragedy. He called for de-escalation and warned that “innocents bear the brunt” when conflict arises.
“If there was no escalation recently in the region, those Canadians would be right now home with their families,” Trudeau said during a televised interview this week.
Many of the Canadians killed were university students and staff returning from winter break, devastating campuses and faculties across Canada. One university in western Canada lost 10 of its staff and students in the crash. Other victims included families coming back from visiting relatives, newlyweds returning from a wedding and a 9-year-old girl and her mother.
Iranian-Canadians, in particular, watched closely as the conflict between the U.S. and Iran continually escalated since President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the 2015 nuclear deal in May 2018. The killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani dramatically increased the tensions as 3,000 more U.S. troops were sent to the region and Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed revenge. Many Iranian-Canadians grew anxious that the standoff could boil over into more direct conflict.
“Anything that threatens innocent lives in Iran fundamentally affects Iranian-Canadian’s lives,” said Pouyan Tabasinejad, vice director of the Iranian Canadian Congress, a nonprofit organization.
The plane crash brought unexpected tragedy to the Iranian-Canadian community, but the immediate grief after what initially seemed like a mechanical failure became more complicated when U.S. and Canadian intelligence officials revealed that they believed the plane was brought down by a missile. Iran declared Saturday that it had accidentally shot down the plane, blaming human error.
“That feeling of grief turned into anger and outrage. People wanted to know what happened and wanted justice,” Ariannejad said.
Canadians have responded with vigils and memorials to the victims, with community leaders saying there have been widespread outpourings of support for Iranian-Canadians. The country’s universities held a moment of silence earlier in the week, flags were flown at half-staff and a foundation for victims’ relatives has raised more than $400,000. Trudeau announced Friday that the government would give $25,000 to Canadian families of the victims to cover funeral and transportation costs.
Though the shooting down of the plane has left Iranian-Canadians reeling from the loss of family members and loved ones, community leaders say it has also highlighted how deeply rooted Iranian-Canadians have become in the country.
“Iranian-Canadians are a relatively new community to Canada,” Tabsinejad said. “What we saw was other Canadians in that moment, when the community needed it the most, coming out and showing us that the Canadian-Iranian community does have a place here, we are Canadians and we will be supported and mourned.”