The 2019 Persian New Year in Toronto attracted upwards of 150,000 people, in a city whose Iranian population sits at 97,110 according to a 2016 census, in a Jan. 9, 2020 story. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Iranian-Canadians killed in plane crash part of growing diaspora community

OTTAWA — If there’s a sign of how Canada’s Iranian diaspora has grown just over the last decade in Canada, consider the story of a festival held in Toronto to mark the Persian New Year, known as Nowruz.

Toronto has long had among the country’s larger Iranian communities and in 2006, when a group of Iranian students decided to throw a Nowruz party, about 20,000 people showed up, said Nima Ahmadi, one of the organizers.

Of course they weren’t all Iranian — the 2006 census put the Iranian population of the city at about 56,930 — but still, it was a pretty big turnout.

So big, in fact, that it spawned a secondary cultural festival, known as Tirgan.

The most recent one, in 2019, attracted upwards of 150,000 people, in a city whose Iranian population, as counted in the 2016 census, sits at 97,110.

Ahmadi and his friends had originally decided to focus on that festival, but demand was so high that in 2017 they brought back a Nowruz party too. Planning for this year’s event, scheduled for mid-March, is now well underway.

But the work took on a sombre tone Wednesday.

Two of Tirgan’s volunteers — Parinaz and Iman Ghaderpanah — are believed to be among the Canadians killed outside Tehran when their flight to Kyiv crashed shortly after takeoff on Wednesday.

A part of the upcoming festival will be decided to them, Ahmadi said.

“We are going to celebrate the lives of these two beautiful people.”

The Iranian-Canadians killed in Wednesday’s crash came from business, health care, education, and many other fields. Many were also students, a growing segment of the Iranian diaspora in Canada.

The number of student visa applications from Iranians approved by the Canadian government has increased significantly in recent years, from 2,437 in 2006 to 11,754 in the first 10 months of 2019.

Ahmadi himself came to Canada in 2002 as a student, his life not that different from those of many killed in Wednesday’s crash.

Ahmadi said he has watched the Iranian-Canadian community grow ever since, with young people bringing over their parents, parents bringing over their children, and all seeking to make new lives for themselves here.

The Tirgan festival, he said, has two goals for that reason: it serves both newly arrived Iranians and those who have been here for decades.

“For the people who are new, you want to show them how beautiful is this country that they allow you to celebrate Iranian culture here,” he said.

“For the people who are here for a longer period, you want to polish and highlight the beauty of our culture.”

The 2016 census suggests there are about 210,405 Iranians in Canada now, with 169,485 identifying themselves as having been born outside Canada. The largest group of immigrants arrived between 2001 to 2010, most as economic immigrants.

Over the years, the government has targeted Iranians with particular immigration programs, including one begun in 2009 by the previous Conservative government focusing on LGBTQ Iranians in Turkey. Some 9,000 Iranians have also been part of privately sponsored refugee programs since the early 1980s.

There do remain ongoing tensions, however, about how long it takes for many Iranians to get their applications for permanent residency in Canada approved.

For the last few years, many have complained that their applications have been held up for seemingly no reason, when applications from citizens of other countries seem to move much faster.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 9, 2020.

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