The Sunday Magazine

The Canadian government's responsibilities in the wake of the Iran plane crash

Lawyer Amanda Ghahremani talks about the federal government’s obligations to Iranian-Canadians who lost loved ones, and the role it can and should play in investigating the plane crash. She specializes in international criminal law, access to justice and redress for survivors of atrocity crimes, and makes the case for reinstating diplomatic relations with Iran.
People attend a candlelight vigil at the Edmonton Legislature building in memory of the victims of Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752 that crashed in Tehran, Iran on January 8, 2020. (Candace Elliott/Reuters)

As more information about this week's horrific plane crash becomes available, the search for answers and justice begins.

The Sunday Edition's host Michael Enright spoke with Amanda Ghahremani about what the Canadian government could do next.

Ghahremani is an international lawyer and consultant whose work focuses on international criminal law, access to justice and redress for survivors of atrocity crimes. She is a research associate at Concordia University's Simone de Beauvoir Institute.

She did extensive legal, diplomatic, and advocacy work to free her aunt Homa Hoodfar, a Canadian-Iranian professor once imprisoned in Iran.

Here are some highlights from their conversation. Ghahremani's comments have been edited and condensed.

What immediate support the Canadian government can provide to victims' families

I think there is a lot of psychological and mental support that they can provide, administrative support and even immigration support.

The Prime Minister announced that 138 people onboard were actually bound for Canada. This means that [in addition to the victims who were Canadian citizens], there were other victims who were either permanent residents or international students or visitors with connections to Canada. So many Canadians may need to travel back to Iran for funeral services. But also, many of the family members will need to come to Canada too, to sort through the victim's belongings and properties and handle a whole host of administrative tasks.

Canada should assist these families [in obtaining] the necessary visas and travel documents. They should expedite the processing times as well. As it stands, it takes about a month to get an answer on a visa request from Iran. Another important point is that Canada doesn't have a very good track record when it comes to low-income applicants trying to get visas; that shouldn't be a barrier for any of these grieving families. Immigration authorities should be especially sensitive to that.

I'd also like to emphasize the need for culturally-sensitive psychological support. Hopefully most of the victims' families will have their own social support networks. But when loss happens through a disaster, especially of this magnitude, people will require more specialized help. It's important for victims' families to know that they're not alone. So creating a peer support group for all the families, connecting them with each other, could be useful.

There's also administrative support. Many families will have to deal with a lot of bureaucratic issues that can exacerbate their pain and their distress. Administrative tasks include notifying health authorities or tax authorities, banks, insurance companies and other institutions of the death of a relative. It often requires bureaucratic hurdles to prove kinship or to prove the cause of death. This can re-traumatize people. So the government — if it hasn't already — should try to create either a special unit or assign a crisis coordinator to assist families holistically … to alleviate this burden during an already challenging time.

Diplomatic re-engagement

The Iranian-Canadian community is incredibly divided and polarized, especially when it comes to the issue of re-engagement with Iran. Certainly, that does send a mixed message to the government on how to best represent its constituents.

But from my own perspective, I think it's incredibly important to have diplomacy. What has Canada achieved by not having diplomatic relations with Iran over the last several years? If anything, we've seen an increase in the arbitrary detention of dual nationals, inadequate consular support for thousands of Iranian-Canadians that travel back and forth and diminishing political clout in the region.

Diplomacy doesn't mean that we support the actions of other governments, including the very problematic leadership currently in Iran. But diplomacy does mean that we have a direct channel to express our political positions, to work on cooperation and also to air our grievances.

Very concretely, if we had an embassy or representative in Iran at the time of the crash, we could have had more immediate access to the crash site and more swift consular support for the victims' families in Iran that have been left in the dark.

If we had an embassy or representative in Iran at the time of the crash, we could have had more immediate access to the crash site and more swift consular support...- Amanda Ghahremani

Access to justice for victims' families

Access to justice is a very important issue for me. In these types of tragedies, with such loss of life, there is really no way to bring back loved ones and to make families whole again. The pain that they will feel will last a lifetime. And there isn't much that we can do as lawyers. 

[Access to] justice for these families recognizes that the victims were innocent, that their families will be left with various burdens, including emotional, psychological and financial. We have a system of laws in place, both domestic and international, to try to compensate for this loss and alleviate some of these burdens. Many of the people on the plane were students or young professionals. Many may have been supporting their families financially. So justice and compensation in this context will be important for them. 

The future of Canada's geopolitical approach to Iran and the United States

I think Canada's focus at the moment should be on the investigation, on getting answers and providing immediate support to the families. 

From the information that we do currently have, it's very clear that there needs to be an immediate de-escalation between Iran and the United States or we will only see more innocent lives getting caught in the crossfire. Unfortunately, because Canada doesn't have diplomatic relations with Iran, it's hard to see what role Canada could play. But if they can do something, I think focusing on a de-escalation would be important.

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.


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