OTTAWA—Ali Ehsassi never imagined his community in north Toronto would confront something as harrowing as the 2018 van attack that killed 10 people on Yonge Street.
Then last week happened.
The Iranian military, primed for war with Canada’s closest ally, shot down a passenger jet leaving Tehran — a tragic mistake, it claimed, that killed 57 Canadians and dozens more who were en route to Pearson airport at the close of the holiday season.
Now Ehsassi, as Liberal MP for the riding of Willowdale, is on the front lines of the federal government’s efforts to soothe the unspeakable grief and anger of the victims’ relatives and press for the answers they so desperately need.
And as a Canadian of Iranian background himself, Ehsassi knew several of the victims and said he is trying to cope with the aftermath of the incident just like everyone else.
“One would be hard-pressed to find someone who does not know one of the victims,” he told the Star by phone this week.
“This has had a huge impact on countless people that I know, so it’s been very, very difficult.”
Along with Mississauga Centre MP Omar Alghabra, Ehsassi and Majid Jowhari — the MP for Richmond Hill who said he moved to Canada from Iran 42 years ago — have been tasked with helping relatives of those killed in the plane crash navigate the aftermath and pass along their concerns to the federal government.
Both Ehsassi and Jowhari are part of sizable Iranian-Canadian communities that represent more than 10 per cent of their respective ridings. And both have spent the past nine days meeting with victims’ families, attending vigils for the dead, and arranging services like legal assistance and consular assistance for those left behind.
Last weekend, Ehsassi helped quickly organize a ceremony at the University of Toronto where politicians including Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland came together with an estimated 4,000 people to mourn those killed in the plane crash.
Jowhari, meanwhile, said he has attended memorial ceremonies across Richmond Hill in recent days, estimating there are at least seven families in his riding who lost relatives in the crash. The dead include students from York Region and a newly-trained dentist who was in Iran to settle affairs before starting the next phase of his life in Canada. He has met parents who had to agree to their son’s burial in Iran at risk of not being able to visit his grave, and knows a father who worked several jobs to pay for his son’s school, only to lose his child as he travelled back to Canada after visiting his mother in Iran.
“They can’t make sense of this, they can’t justify it, they can’t explain it, they don’t understand why it had to happen,” Jowhari said.
Out of that sorrow, the MPs said families are urging the government to continue its efforts to press Iran to allow Canadian officials into the country to help repatriate the remains of victims whose families want them buried in Canada. There is also a strong desire for justice that includes compensation paid by the Iranian regime, Ehsassi said.
“People are incredibly, incredibly grateful for all the love and support that they have received from all walks of Canadian life,” Ehsassi said.
“On the other hand,” he added, “there is a lot of anger aimed at the Iranian government as well.”
On Thursday, Canada’s foreign affairs minister, François-Philippe Champagne, met in London with counterparts from Ukraine, Sweden, Afghanistan and the United Kingdom — countries with citizens that died in the crash — to collectively press Iran to co-operate with the international community on a “thorough, independent and transparent” investigation of the crash. They also called for “full and unhindered” access for consular officials to help identify victims and provide services to their families from inside Iran, and that the “wishes of the families regarding repatriation are respected in all cases.”
“First and foremost, they want a clear answer of what happened,” Jowhari said of the families he has spoken to. “They want transparency, they want accountability, they want the bodies back, and they want compensation.”
In the meantime, the federal government is considering interim financial support for families as they wait for the results of the investigation and a clearer picture of who is responsible for the disaster, and whether Iran will agree to any form of compensation.
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For Jowhari and Ehsassi, the efforts to support families have been all consuming, both for themselves and their political staff. But each of them said they will continue to press the concerns they are hearing to the federal government, and are joining calls on Iran to be accountable to the families of those killed by its missiles.
“Not in my wildest dreams did I think this would be something that we had to deal with,” Jowhari said.
“I’m lost for words.”