OTTAWA — Canada is pushing to be part of the Iranian-led investigation of the plane crash near Tehran that killed everyone on board, including 138 people bound for Canada, says Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Gaining access could prove challenging because Canada broke diplomatic relations with Iran in 2012, shuttering its Tehran embassy and expelling its diplomats. Trudeau said Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne was to speak with his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, to stress the need for a thorough investigation into the crash — one that included Canada.
The Transportation Safety Board has also assigned an expert to monitor the progress of the Iranian investigation, but it is unclear whether that investigator will benefit from first-hand Iranian information or be forced to rely on other countries.
In addition to Champagne’s direct appeal to Tehran, Canada is also relying on allies such as Italy, Britain, France and Ukraine to ensure a thorough investigation of the crash, the prime minister said.
“I am confident that we are going to be able to be part of the investigation. That is certainly something that we take very seriously,” Trudeau told a Parliament Hill news conference. “We are going to make sure that we are a substantive contributor to this investigation.”
The Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737-800, bound for Kyiv, crashed shortly after taking off from the Iranian capital early Wednesday local time, killing all 176 people on board, including at least 63 Canadians.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko said the plane was also carrying 82 Iranians, 11 Ukrainian passengers and crew, 10 Swedes, four Afghans, three Germans and three Britons.
The vast majority were bound for Toronto on a connecting flight, and as Trudeau poignantly highlighted that plane landed Wednesday minus 138 of its intended passengers “because they died in the crash on the earlier leg of their travel. There a number of steps being taken to support the families at Pearson Airport.”
Trudeau said he spoke with U.S. President Donald Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson other allies who all offered their sympathies and support.
Ukraine’s ambassador to Canada said his country would help Canada participate in the Iranian-led investigation of the crash.
“The investigation on the ground is conducted by Iran, and Ukraine will of course contribute,” envoy Andriy Shevchenko said in an interview. “We’re ready to do everything we can to help the investigation. We hope that the Canadian offer of contribution into the investigation will be recognized and appreciated.”
The crash capped a week of soaring tensions in the Middle East, occurring just hours after Iran launched missile attacks on bases in Iraq where American troops are stationed. Iran said the attacks were retaliation for the American killing of a top general near Baghdad last week.
The Iranian military disputed any suggestion the plane had been hit by a missile, and Iranian aviation authorities said they suspected a mechanical problem brought down the 3 1/2-year-old Boeing 737. Ukrainian authorities initially said it appeared mechanical failure was to blame, but later walked that back, saying nothing had been ruled out.
Trudeau said the government couldn’t rule out that the plane had been shot down, but he also cautioned: “It is too early to speculate; I would encourage people not to speculate.”
Transport Minister Marc Garneau — one of several ministers and government officials to flank Trudeau at his press conference — said satellite data showed the aircraft climbing normally for two minutes after take-off.
“However, we lost contact with it, suggesting that something very unusual happened, but we cannot speculate at this point. There are a number of possibilities,” he said.
Shevchenko said the plane had “passed all the necessary technical maintenance prior to the flight. There was a well-experienced crew. The captain had 12,000 flight hours of experience specifically on Boeing 737s.”
Now, he said Ukraine was determined to press for answers, leveraging its embassy in Tehran, and its open diplomatic channels with Iran.
“Our minister of foreign affairs had a phone conversation with the Iranian minister of foreign affairs, so we have established contact on this,” said Shevchenko.
“It is heartbreaking. We have been such close friends with Canada and share so many good things. Now we will have to walk through this pain together.”
The Ukrainian offer is significant because Canada has been a vocal critic of Iran since breaking diplomatic ties, including of its record on human rights through numerous interventions at the United Nations. The government cited Iran’s support of terrorism and concerns for the safety of its diplomats when it severed ties more than seven years ago.
Ukraine officials are also working closely with the Iranians to identify all the victims and repatriate their remains, Shevchenko added. The Ukraine government has dispatched two planes to Iran to help with that grim task.
The Conservative defence critic says he doesn’t want the Iranian government to block access to investigators from Canada or any other countries affected.
“Families deserve to get a full report on exactly what happened,” Tory MP James Bezan said in an interview.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement said his government also wants “complete co-operation” with any probe into the crash.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said on Twitter: “These families deserve clear answers, but whatever the cause, this is devastating.”
Trudeau said the government’s priority was ensuring the safety of Canadians. And he said Canada joined with other countries in mourning the loss of its citizens. He also took a moment to highlight the cost to Canada: “A newlywed couple, a family of four, a mom and her two daughters, bright students and dedicated faculty members. All had so much potential, so much life ahead of them.”
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer also offered his condolences on Twitter, calling it a “horrific tragedy.”
“Today is a sad day for our country,” Scheer wrote.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 8, 2020.
— With files from the Associated Press
Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press