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"Canadians from sea to sea came to help as best as they could”: Toronto MP on the Iran Plane Crash

March 3, 2020
Arash Azizi
4 min read
Most of the passengers on the Tehran-Kiev flight that the Revolutionary Guards shot down were headed to Canada and at least 90 had strong links to the country
Most of the passengers on the Tehran-Kiev flight that the Revolutionary Guards shot down were headed to Canada and at least 90 had strong links to the country

Iran’s unintentional shooting down of a Ukrainian airliner in January 2020 happened in the midst of an international crisis and quickly became the top news worldwide. But the media have a way of moving on, and only a few weeks later, with the world engulfed in the deadly spread of coronavirus, in most places, you’d be hard-pushed to find any coverage of the crash or reports on the family members of the 176 victims on board. 

In Canada, however, things are different. No community was hit harder by the tragedy than the Iranian-Canadian community and its nexus of relations in broader Canadian society. Most of the passengers on the Tehran-Kiev flight were headed to Canada and at least 90 had strong links to the country, with 57 being Canadian citizens and 29 permanent residents of the country. 

For Ali Ehsassi, an Iranian-Canadian member of parliament, the last two months have been some of the most challenging days of his career. In 2015, Ehsassi and his fellow Liberal MP Majid Jowhari made history by becoming the first Iranian-Canadian MPs. Not only is he of Iranian origin, but Ehsassi represents a constituency in north Toronto (Willowdale) that is home to thousands of Iranians and is the beating heart of the community (full disclosure: he happens to be the MP for my father). I've written before about how the strong solidarity with the community shown by Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, had made him popular in Iran. But the whole affair has also had a formative effect on the community served by Ehssasi.

“The crash focused attention on the issues of belonging,” Ehsassi tells me in a phone interview. “Given the impressive role the Canadian society played in the aftermath of the tragedy, it would be difficult for us not to feel we belong to this country. Canadians from sea to sea to sea came to help as best as they could.”


The Canada Strong Campaign

The main campaign to financially help the victims of the crash was initiated by a Canadian of Middle Eastern descent whose roots go back not to Iran but to Lebanon. Mohamad Fakih, a 49-year-old businessman, runs the halal food restaurant chain Paramount. A classic Canadian success story, he left Lebanon for the country 24 years ago, buying a bankrupt shawarma restaurant in the Greater Toronto suburb of Mississauga (home to many Arab immigrants). His chain now has 80 branches in Canada and beyond. Fakih spearheaded the Canada Strong Campaign, a fundraising effort that the government of Ottawa promised to match up to Canadian $1.5 million. The campaign was a phenomenal success and ended up raising $1.7 million. 

Ehsassi tells me that that the model for the campaign came from an earlier one in 2018 in the aftermath of the horrific van attack that hit the Willowdale community and led to 10 deaths and 15 people being injured. 

“It was then that an organization called Toronto Foundation was formed, essentially consisting of a number of lawyers who wanted to help so that all the donations could go to the immediate relatives of the victim.” 

Fakih used that model and spearheaded an attempt to help the plane crash victims. “I can’t tell you how incredibly he worked under difficult circumstances,” Ehsassi says. 

Fakih started the campaign with $65,000 he and a few of his fellow businessmen raised themselves. The restaurant owner, who runs his own Fakih Foundation for charity purposes,  the Canada Strong Campaign shortly after the crash in a press conference held in one of his restaurants on Toronto’s Yonge Street. He said coming together at tough times like this was simply “ the Canadian thing to do.”

The crash helped Iranian-Canadians realize how interwoven their lives were with that of other Canadians. 

“What came to light was how each of these individuals were sown in the fabric of various communities in this country,” Ehsassi tells me. “A lot of them were doctors or researchers and the universities took a specially difficult hit. They were also front and center in helping.” He points to a new scholarship launched by the University of Toronto. 

Aside from the $1.7 million that was just raised, the Trudeau government had already provided each of the victims with $25,000 for immediate relief. 

These are all separate from the compensation that Canada expects Iran to pay, as it has admitted to shooting down the planes. 

“Shortly after this tragedy, the Canadian government decided that it was imperative that we actually cooperate with four other countries who had their nationals killed in the crash,” Ehsassi tells me. “Together, we let Iran know that the international community needs a thorough investigation and we will make sure that justice is served. “

I ask Ehsassi if he is hopeful at all that Tehran will provide the victims with adequate compensation. 

“I don’t think it will be hopeful for anyone to speculate,” Ehssasi says before adding: “Canada will take this issue very seriously and we will settle for nothing less than justice.”

Victims of the crash are going through hard times of grief, but in Ottawa, they have something they were not used to at home: Politicians on their side.

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