OTTAWA—As Iranians took to the streets en masse to protest the shooting down of a Ukrainian plane by Iran on Jan. 8, killing all 176 passengers on board including some of their fellow citizens, political fallout in Canada took a different course.
Five days after the crash in which 57 Canadians also died, following a barrage of questions from reporters on whether U.S. President Donald Trump was to blame, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took to Global News and more or less blamed the United States.
“If there were no tensions, if there was no escalation recently in the region, those Canadians would be right now home with their families,” Trudeau said when asked if the Canadians killed in the crash were “collateral damage in the tensions between Iran and the U.S.”
The same evening, just before Trump boarded Marine One to attend a college football championship game, he told reporters, “We killed Soleimani, the number one terrorist in the world. … When the Democrats try to defend him, it’s a disgrace to our country.”
Trump was of course referring Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s clandestine Quds Force who was killed by a U.S. drone strike in the parking lot of Baghdad Airport on Jan. 2. Quds is a branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia.
Through 2019 Soleimani orchestrated the downing of an American drone, the commandeering of foreign-flagged vessels in the Persian Gulf, and a missile attack from Yemen on Saudi Arabian oil facilities.
It was also Soleimani who organized the Dec. 31 assault on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad that was carried out by Iranian-backed militia. The mob laid siege to the compound, battering down gates, windows, and doors, setting fire to and ransacking the reception area, and tagging the walls with anti-U.S. graffiti.
Six days after the drone strike and four hours after Iran ended its missile bombardment of two Iraqi military bases housing NATO forces in retaliation for Soleimani’s death, flight 752 bound for Kyiv was cleared for takeoff from Imam Khomeini International Airport.
Minutes later, shrapnel from a surface-to-air missile launched from inside Iran disabled an engine on the plane, which ultimately caught fire before it slammed into the outskirts of Tehran.
Despite Canada having listed the Quds Forces as a terrorist entity, Trudeau framed Soleimani’s killing as “escalation” rather than “deterrence.”
“It is a reminder why all of us need to work so hard on de-escalation, on moving forward to reduce tensions and find a pathway that doesn’t involve further conflict and killing,” he said in the Global News interview.
At a press conference in Ottawa, Trudeau dodged questions on whether Soleimani was a legitimate target based on Quds Force’s terrorist entity designation in Canada. He also avoided accepting what Defence Minister Harjet Sajjan had earlier acknowledged: that the strike was “an act of deterrence” that was carried out based on U.S. intelligence.
On Jan. 4, two days after the U.S. airstrike, a candlelight vigil for Soleimani was held in downtown Toronto; counter demonstrators showed up and police had to separate the factions.
Similarly, Canada’s federal opposition parties are also at odds. Like Trudeau, the New Democrats accused Trump of stoking conflict in the region—albeit in harsher tones—while the Conservative Party said Soleimani was guilty of the same.
At a news conference in Ottawa on Jan. 13, Council of Iranian Canadians president Avideh Motmaen-Far and chair of Justice 88 Campaign Reza Banai joined B’Nai Brith CEO Micheal Mostyn to demand that Trudeau declare the entire IRGC as terror group, as Trump did in April 2019.
“Current circumstances do not detract from what we know about the threat, and what action must be taken in response,” said Mostyn, urging the government to act on a September 2018 motion in the House of Commons that Liberal MPs supported that would list IRGC as a terrorist entity.
‘“The IRGC must be listed as a terrorist group and no further delay is acceptable.”
As for whether taking such action might be ill-advised since Canadian diplomatic efforts are ongoing to access Iran to investigate the crash, identify victims, and begin repatriation processes, Motmaen-Far said the move is necessary.
“That’s the only way to corner them [by cutting their financial means]; then they will not have the power to terrorize us,” she said.
“How can they make it worse than it is now?” she added, noting the 2003 murder of Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi after her arrest in Tehran.
The following evening, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer reiterated his party’s call to list the IRGC as a terrorist entity in a series of tweets, and said “the blame for this horrible atrocity lies with the Iranian regime alone,” referring to the downing of flight 752.