Canadian Press photo

‘That’s the plane’: How the federal government reacted to the downing of Flight PS752

OTTAWA — Shortly before 10 p.m. on Jan. 7, 2020, Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne peeked at his mobile phone during a particularly intense teleconference. A BBC report of a plane crash outside Tehran airport flashed on his Twitter feed.

What a tragic start to the year, the minister thought as he turned back to the high-level government teleconference seized with assessing the fallout of the Iranian missiles that had blasted two American military bases in Iraq, where several hundred Canadian soldiers were stationed.

Four days earlier, U.S. President Donald Trump ordered a military drone to obliterate Iran’s Gen. Qassem Soleimani near Baghdad airport. Iran was retaliating, stoking fears the Canadian military trainers in Iraq might become collateral damage. No one in Ottawa had yet heard of Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752, which had just lifted off from Tehran’s airport.

About five hours later, the Global Affairs Canada operations centre roused Champagne in the dead of night to inform him an airliner had crashed, with an unknown number of Canadians on board.

“My mind started to race back to what I went to bed with. They said, ‘yeah, that’s the plane,’” Champagne recalled in an interview. “That’s the plane that took off from Tehran. It was going to Kyiv.”

The events that unfolded in the early morning of Jan. 8, 2020 would swiftly lead to the revelation that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard had shot down the passenger jet, after early efforts by Tehran’s leaders to cover that up. Canada’s political leaders, and its allies in Ukraine, Afghanistan, Sweden and Britain who lost nationals on the flight quickly learned how the airliner was destroyed. But one year later, their combined political efforts to answer another searing question — why? — remains a work in progress.

All 176 people on the plane were killed, and 138 of them were connected to Canada: 55 citizens, 30 permanent residents and 53 more were visitors on their way here, many of them Iranian students bound for Canadian universities.

“These are people, by and large, who had made their own decision to look to Canada for their futures and their future opportunities,” said Ralph Goodale, the former Liberal public safety minister and the government’s special adviser on PS752.

“Canada has a particular obligation to do everything we possibly can, leave no stone unturned, to get them, their families, the answers that they deserve.”

Goodale, who was appointed in March, released a detailed report last month that poses 21 unanswered questions to the largely unco-operative Iranian regime, which has control of the investigation due to the current state of international aviation law.

Why were commercial airliners allowed to take off from an airport in the middle of a carefully planned military attack? Were the airlines themselves told of this military action?

Goodale’s report also contains the recollections of federal public servants, who first learned of the crash and had to mobilize to travel to Iran against formidable odds.

It was just after midnight on Jan. 8 when Adam Foulkes, pulling the night shift at the Global Affairs Canada Emergency Watch and Response Centre, confirmed a Ukrainian airliner flying out of Iran had crashed soon after takeoff. He immediately telephoned Canada’s embassies in Turkey and Ukraine in search of the plane’s passenger list.

Kyiv returned his call at about 2:30 a.m. “I’ll never forget the shock as they told me that the manifest indicated there were dozens of Canadians on the flight,” Foulkes recalled. “It felt like only a few moments later that the first calls from families started coming in.”

Before the end of Jan. 8, Canadian officials, along with their allies began analyzing satellite data before reaching the inevitable conclusion that PS752 had been shot down. Iran was denying responsibility for the incident, but social media images would soon emerge showing at least one missile striking the jet.

“Transport Canada had the radar data, and they described the way the plane suddenly went off the screen. It suggested some kind of catastrophic event that was incompatible with mechanical failure,” David Morrison, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s national security and intelligence adviser, told Goodale.

By 4 a.m. on Jan. 9, “we had gathered enough reliable information to assess that a missile had likely caused the crash,” said Morrison.

Now, a major political obstacle had to be overcome — this tragedy had occurred in a country with which Canada had severed all diplomatic relations in 2012.

The former Conservative government of Stephen Harper determined it could no longer protect Canadian diplomats at a vulnerable Tehran embassy, as it was about to pass legislation designating Iran a state sponsor of terrorism.

Now, Canada would have to find a way to get its public servants back into Iran. Canada turned to Italy, which had become the country to which it has essentially outsourced its on-the-ground diplomatic relations with Iran under international conventions.

Champagne again turned to his cellphone and texted his Italian counterpart, Luigi Di Maio. Champagne speaks Italian so he didn’t bother using either of Canada’s official languages when he made his first request for help.

“One thing that I’ve learned in 2020 is to do text diplomacy. It’s efficient, it’s personalized and it’s fast.”

On Jan. 11, Trudeau called Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who had pronounced the shootdown of PS752 a “great tragedy and unforgivable mistake,” and promised investigations and prosecutions.

Despite the lack of entry visas to Iran, the government sent several Global Affairs personnel to neighbouring Turkey with two investigators from the Transportation Safety Board.

Their visas finally came through, with help of the Italians, and the Canadian team touched down in Tehran on Jan. 13 for six days of helping grieving families deal with the remains of their loved ones, while trying to understand how the plane came to be shot down.

Team member François Shank recalled his first meeting with PS752 families.

“They showed such incredible strength and resiliency, even though I can’t imagine how hard it must have been.”

Eventually, Shank joined team members at the spot where the plane had fallen, which had been bulldozed.

“You could see that the plane had crashed in a schoolyard maybe 50 yards from two densely populated areas. It made you think of just how senseless this tragedy was.”

On Jan. 17, one day after travelling to London for his first meeting of his fellow foreign ministers of the PS752 countries, Champagne landed in the Persian Gulf after a red-eye flight out of Heathrow for a clandestine meeting with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif. The Omani government arranged the meeting in a secluded section of the Muscat airport.

“Once the meeting started it was striking to see the different approaches of the two ministers. Minister Champagne, having just come from a vigil for the victims in London, was clearly motivated by the needs of the families and deeply engaged in the details,” Peter MacDougall, assistant deputy minister at Global Affairs, told Goodale.

Nearly a year later, Champagne reflected on that meeting and the many others he would have with the families of the victims of PS752. He gained an appreciation of what it must be like to be a world leader who has to call the families of fallen soldiers, which is not part of the usual job description of a foreign minister.

“I can assure you that it really gets inside of you,” Champagne said. “I’m the face of the fight. I have to keep my head to make sure that I can do the best fight for them.”

In early October, Goodale flew from Saskatchewan to join Champagne and Transport Minister Marc Garneau at a solemn memorial the PS752 families held on the front lawn of Parliament Hill.

Masked, with his head down and hands clasped, Goodale listened as the names those killed were read out. Champagne delivered a fiery speech railing against Iran. Dozens of mourners wearing masks, many sobbing, spread out on the lawn during COVID-19’s second wave.

Goodale said this week the PS752 families have done an exceptional job of commemorating their lost loved ones and fighting for justice during the “complicated and terribly messy year” of the global pandemic.

“They haven’t been able to travel as they would have liked to. They haven’t been able to meet as they would like to. They have made extraordinarily good use of digital technology to maintain contact among all the family members and maintain the appropriate contact with me and with Minister Champagne and Minister Garneau and with the prime minister,” he said.

“We’re coming now to that anniversary date, which is a very appropriate time to refresh everyone’s determination to continue the work to get to the bottom of what happened, and why.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 8, 2021.

Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press

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