Thousands of demonstrators lined the streets of Canadian cities from St. John’s to Vancouver as part of a worldwide “human chain” to show solidarity with ongoing anti-government protests in Iran.
In Toronto, stretches of Yonge Street were flanked by crowds chanting “women, life, freedom” and “say her name: Mahsa Amini,” who died on Sept. 16 after being detained for allegedly violating the country’s strict Islamic dress code for women.
At a midtown intersection, cars blared their horns as they passed by demonstrators holding pictures of loved ones who were among the victims of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752. On Jan. 8, 2020, 176 people, including 55 Canadian citizens, were killed when Iran’s Revolutionary Guard shot down the Ukrainian airliner.
The events were organized by the Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims.
Arash Morattab, who lost his brother and sister-in-law in the crash, said the victims of Flight 752 have common cause with the protest movement that has rocked Iran for nearly a month and a half in the face of harsh backlash from security forces.
“We are all victims of a regime that started killing people from the first days of them coming into power, and this keeps going until now,” said Morattab. “They killed our beloved ones in January 2020, and now they kill other people that fight for their rights.”
‘It’s not just about the hijab’
The fight for justice is particularly resonant for women in Iran who continue to be denied freedom, said protester Sara Ahmadi. She said she ran into problems with the regime because she wasn’t legally married to her common-law partner, who was killed in the plane crash.
“Women don’t have any rights in my country,” Ahmadi said. “It’s not just about the hijab. It’s about everything.”
Further north on Yonge Street, protesters chanted, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Islamic regime must go” and “What solution? Revolution” while drivers leaned on their horns in solidarity.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Mehrdokht Hadi, one of the organizers of the Toronto event. “Two months ago I couldn’t imagine this crowd on the streets, now people are not scared and people are motivated.”
The protests in Iran sparked by Amini’s death first focused on the state-mandated hijab, or head scarf for women, but quickly grew into calls for the downfall of the country’s theocracy.
At least 270 people have been killed and 14,000 have been arrested in the protests that have swept over 125 Iranian cities, according to the group Human Rights Activists in Iran.
The Iranian government has repeatedly alleged that foreign powers have orchestrated the protests, but have not provided evidence to support the claim.
Trudeau at Ottawa protest
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke at the protest in Ottawa, where several hundred people gathered outside the National Gallery of Canada before moving to stretch along both sides of the Alexandra Bridge.
“Iranians made their choice, Canada be their voice,” and “Canada, U.S., take action, take action” featured prominently in the chants heard in the nation’s capital.
Trudeau told the crowd that he and other Canadians stood with the protesters in Iran.
“They are not forgotten. Their voices are being heard,” he said.
The biggest applause for the prime minister came when he discussed Iranians in Canada “who have benefited from the corrupt, from the horrific regime in Iran,” saying “no more” would Canada be a safe haven.
Canada has moved to bar thousands of members of the Iranian regime and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from entering Canada.
Trudeau’s words Saturday prompted chants of “kick them out” from the crowd.
One of the protesters, Arian Nourishad, said she was glad to see Trudeau at the protest, along with Sophie Grégoire Trudeau.
“Of course, you can always do more. But we’re happy he’s here,” she said.
Sharooz Fazni, who came to Canada from Iran in 1984, said that he was more hopeful about these protests than ever before. He said he was glad to be taking part in protests in Canada in support of those in Iran.
“Here, nobody shoots. But in Iran …”
Calls for democracy, end to regime
In Winnipeg, more than 100 people participated in the human chain protest that began at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and stretched along the Esplanade Riel.
“We want democracy for Iran. We want this oppression to end,” Kouroush Doustshenas, who helped organize the event.
“We want to see this regime end, because as long as they are around there will be no peace or justice, not only for Iranians but for a large area of the Middle East,” he said.
The real estate agent lost his fiancée when Flight 752 was shot down. Eight of those killed in the disaster were from Winnipeg.
He’s now a director of the Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims.
“We’ve called [for] this human chain to memorialize and celebrate the lives of the people we have lost [to the regime],” Doustshenas said.
Doustshenas, and other leaders from the Manitoba Iranian community, met with Trudeau and members of parliament in Winnipeg on Friday at the Tehran Cafe.
In Saskatoon, a number of city officials, including Mayor Charlie Clark, joined hundreds of people in a march that began at the top of University Bridge and made its way downtown to city hall.
One of the organizers said the worldwide protests are meant to highlight what is happening in Iran.
“[It’s] putting the spotlight and mounting pressure on the Iranian government to stop killing protesters, and I think that attention has a big role to play in achieving that goal,” said Pooyan Arab, director of Saskatoon Iranian Cultural Association and one of the march’s organizers.
Calgary’s Edworthy Park was filled with more than 500 people standing side by side in defiance of Iran regime, chanting Amini’s name and calling on the Canadian government to help make a change.
Ghazal Khanlarbig was among them. She’s been in Canada since she was 14.
“When I was 13, I was at a party with my aunt and I was arrested by morality police because we were attending a birthday party,” Khanlarbig said.
“I will never forget those 15 hours…. It was actually a few months before I came to Canada and I was crying and I was begging because I thought I would never be able to leave Iran.”
Decades later, she’s protesting against that regime thousands of kilometres away.
Meanwhile, about 100 people turned out in support of Iranian protesters in Edmonton. The rally was hosted by the Iranian Heritage Society of Edmonton (IHSE) along with the Association of Families of Flight PS752.
Organizer Reza Akbari, president of the IHSE, said the Iranian government’s tight control of the internet restricts people’s ability to share their stories of what is happening in Iran’s schools and on its streets. He said the protest was a way to be their voice and ensure their message is heard.
‘Please be our voice’
In Vancouver, thousands of people joined hands along the Lions Gate Bridge, which links Vancouver to North Vancouver, to form a human chain starting at noon PT. The group held banners and waved flags as passing motorists honked their horns.
According to the Vancouver Police Department, there were 15,000 to 20,000 people on the bridge at the rally’s peak. The protest was peaceful with no arrests, police said.
Massive protest on Lionsgate bridge by local Iranian community against the current Iranian regime. People chanting slogans of ‘Azaadi’(Freedom). Both sides of the bridge covered by protestors forming a Human Chain. <a href=”https://t.co/D6ezYW5a2J”>pic.twitter.com/D6ezYW5a2J</a>
About 200 people protested in Harbourside Park in St. John’s on Saturday.
Aysan, one of the protest organizers, said she was arrested in Iran and forced to wear a hijab. CBC News is only referring to her by her first name to protect her family still in Iran.
Aysan called for people to speak up to help force change in the regime in Iran.
“What we want from people of the world, people of Canada, first of all, please be our voice. You might not know that, but being your voice, even sharing your story on social media can save lives,” she said.
“We are the same people as you. Just because we were born in Middle East doesn’t mean that we deserve to be murdered. And we want the world [to] know that and stop being supportive of the regime.”
In Halifax, the show of support for the people of Iran moved some demonstrators to tears, said Reza Rahimi, who lost his mother-in-law when Flight 752 was shot down.
“[Locals and] immigrants from every nation and every race were standing beside us,” Rahimi said.
“Three years after losing my mother-in-law abroad, I’m not saying it’s let us move on — we would never move on — but it will help us put something on the pain.”
Similar protests unfolded on Saturday in other Canadian cities including London and Waterloo, Ont., and Montreal. Around the world, cities in the U.S., Australia, France, Germany, Italy and the U.K., among other countries, were also slated to host rallies.
With files from Christian Paas-Lang, Jane Gerster, Lukas Wall, Jenn Allen, Samantha Schwientek, Chad Pawson, Scott Larson, Omar Sherif, Eva Lam and The Canadian Press