Rosemary Ganley The Peterborough Examiner January 28, 2021
Just a year ago, on Jan. 7, 2020, we woke to the awful news that a civilian airliner, more than two-thirds full of Canadians, had been shot down in those troubled skies over Iran, and 176 lives had been lost, 158 of them either Canadian citizens, permanent residents or people coming to Canada to study.
Ukrainian Airlines Flight PS752 had been shot down by two missiles launched by the Iranian military toward American bases in Iraq, Iran’s western neighbour.
The previous few days in that conflicted area had been alarming: The U.S. had assassinated by drone an Iranian general, Quassem Soleimani, in Iraq. Iran was retaliating by firing missiles into Iraq, aiming at American bases there.
Still, civilian aircraft were being allowed to enter and leave Tehran’s airspace. The doomed flight was headed for Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, from where 158 passengers would board flights to Canada.
In the aftermath, Iran denied responsibility, then admitted it, then said it was a low-lever error. Then it kept the black box for eight months.
The sad loss of life demanded a co-ordinated Canadian response. The Prime Minister’s Office, Global Affairs Canada, the Minister of Transport, the immigration department, the RCMP and civil aviation authorities organized to help the bereaved families, and seek information from Iranian authorities.
In March, Prime Minister Trudeau asked Ralph Goodale of Regina, a respected parliamentarian who had been in the House of Commons for 31 years, to undertake a full inquiry into the incident.
Now, in fewer than 11 months, we have a government report that deals with a sorrowful and enraging episode, but is so clearly written, with passion and anger, so well-documented and enlivened with pictures, names and data, it becomes an important read.
The report, entitled “Flight PS752: The Long Road to Transparency, Accountability and Justice” has a strong, local connection. At 62 pages in length, it singles out Peterborough’s Greg Dempsey, a Canadian foreign service officer for the past 12 years, who had stints in Afghanistan, Geneva and New York, as one deserving of “special thanks for his skill, judgment and hard work.”
Dempsey, who grew up in Peterborough, attended Edmison Heights School and Adam Scott Collegiate, researched and led the writing of the report. It is a model of clear narrative, and a significant contribution to international discussion. It honours the lives lost, and shows our public service at its best. It is of some comfort to the bereaved, and outlines the prevention of such air disasters.
Goodale, even in the pandemic, had co-operation from many government sectors, Global Affairs Canada, the Transportation and Safety Board and the RCMP. Since Canada closed its embassy in Iran in 2012, travellers have had to go to Turkey for their paperwork and then fly out of Tehran on one of a limited number of airlines.
Goodale says It was “the toughest and most moving assignment I have ever undertaken.” He praised the poise and courage of the families here in Canada, while they seek answers and grieve loved ones.
Global Affairs Canada had sent members of its Standing Rapid Deployment Team to Iran, regarding the issuing of death certificates, and then to five cities in Canada which had suffered the most casualties: Vancouver, Edmonton. Toronto, Montreal and Winnipeg. Poignant quotes from those people highlight the document.
In receiving it, the prime minister pledged to institute a National Day of Remembrance for victims of military attacks on civilian aircraft, and a commitment of promote a “Safer Skies” pledge by all nations.
Says Greg Dempsey, “Although I have represented Canada in some of the toughest places in the world, and have worked to end all manner of human rights abuses, the tragic senselessness of flight PS752 is difficult to bear. The families of the victims have been incredible in the face of the tragedy. I hope this report and the commitment it expresses bring them some comfort and closure.”
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