Some Iranian Canadians say they are taking efforts into their own hands to investigate and track down Iranian regime members and affiliates who are now in Canada — saying the Canadian government is not doing enough.
One group even made the extraordinary move of publicly shaming a recent arrival at Toronto’s Pearson airport, who they claimed was a regime affiliate, asking how she got a visa.
The issue has ramped up since protests erupted across Iran last fall after the in-custody death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was arrested by morality police in Tehran for allegedly violating Iran’s strict rules requiring women to cover their hair with a hijab, or headscarf.
As demonstrations have continued against the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran within the country and around the world, dissidents fear supporters of the regime may be leaving for safer harbours — like Canada.
“They’re terrorists,” said Mojdeh Shahriari, a human rights lawyer in Vancouver. “Do you want these people to roam around in Canada unchecked? Are you OK with that? I don’t think so.”
Shahriari is a member of an organization called StopIRGC, a group of volunteers who are dedicating time and money to follow leads on regime members and affiliates here in Canada.
She says they have received more than 200 reports and are looking into the strongest leads, sometimes with the help of a private investigator. Once a solid file is built, they will turn over the evidence to authorities to take further action.
“If Canada was doing what it’s supposed to do to keep Canada safe, there would be no need for anything that we are doing,” she said.
Regime officials in Canada outed before
This is not the first time concerned citizens have outed affiliates of the Iranian regime in Canada.
In 2021, a high-profile former Tehran police chief was spotted running on a treadmill in Richmond Hill, Ont. Morteza Talaei was in charge of Tehran’s police in 2003 when Iranian Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi was beaten to death in custody.
An Iranian dissident spotted and filmed him; those images went viral. Many in the community wanted to know how it was possible he had been allowed to enter Canada.
At the time, Talaei wasn’t on any sanctions list.
Last fall, CBC News and other news outlets sent inquiries to the government and to CSIS about Talaei, and soon after that he was added to the sanctions list, which should prevent him from entering the country again.
At the time, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) would not comment on his case, citing privacy legislation.
On Nov. 14, the federal government designated Iran as a regime that engages in terrorism and systemic human rights violations and banned regime members, including their relatives, from entering Canada. But they have fallen short of designating it as a terrorist organization, something critics say is very concerning.
“We [Canada] have dragged our feet since 2018 and not listed this group as a terrorist group, while we acknowledge that they are engaged in terrorism, so it absolutely makes no sense, I would like an answer,” Shahriari said.
Dozens of Iranian Canadians, including Shahriari, have told CBC they have concerns of regime presence already here. Some say they have felt watched — at home or while participating in protests.
“We have had many suspicious people roaming around in the protest, taking pictures, and you can’t accuse anyone without knowing exactly who they are. But it’s that uncomfortable feeling that a lot of people have, their looking over their shoulders,” she said.
“That uncomfortable feeling is very much a part of life in Canada especially. And so that’s why that is the main concern for me.”
Last October, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed some of those fears to be true.
“We know there are people in Canada now who have benefited from the horrific regime in Iran to live a good life in Canada — well, we say no more,” Trudeau said while at a protest in Ottawa.
But people like Shahriari say that is not enough.
“Even within the laws that we have, they should not be able to come to Canada. But they keep coming. So I’m as shocked as anyone else. People sometimes ask me, ‘You are a lawyer, how is this happening?’ I really don’t know,” she said.
‘Immense anger’ at Canadian authorities
While StopIRGC has been investigating and advocating, others are taking more extreme actions — even publicly shaming people they believe to be associated with the regime.
At Toronto Pearson International airport last December, a small group waited in arrivals for a traveller who they believe is affiliated with the regime. They said they had received tips from dissidents inside Iran.
Footage taken by the group and posted on YouTube shows a small group filming on their phones and yelling at a woman, accusing her of working for the regime. They follow her through the airport; the footage rolls for more than 30 minutes.
“She just came to Canada, she used to work for the Iranian regime office and we’d like to know who gave her a visa, and we want the Canadian government to investigate that,” one man shouts at police officers who have come to break it up.
CBC has not confirmed any of the allegations being made in the video.
However, the sentiment motivating these actions, the need for answers on how members of the regime or its affiliates are getting into Canada, is a concern expressed by many in the community.
“There is the threat of excess, of people going too far, of people being slandered, and I have seen examples of that,” said Kaveh Shahrooz, a human rights activist more discreetly tracking regime members in Canada; he receives tips and carefully researches those leads.
“I think there is immense anger at Canadian authorities. The horrors that were inflicted on us and our families in Iran have been exported here to Canada,” he said.
“I have personally been in many meetings with government officials saying, folks, this is a real threat to this country. And we’ve always been dismissed, politely dismissed,” Shahrooz said.
Shahrooz likens Iranian officials leaving Iran now to Nazi leaders fleeing Germany for Argentina and elsewhere at the end of the Second World War.
“I worry that the same thing is going to happen as the Iranian regime comes under pressure and hopefully collapses. And a lot of them, I suspect, are gonna be coming to Canada,” he said.
Canada’s spy agency, CSIS, told CBC News it continues to investigate the threat of the regime in Canada. Last fall, it announced it was following credible “threats to life emanating from the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
The office of the public safety minister responded to CBC News’s request for comment and noted that Canada has already banned thousands of Iranian regime members from entering the country.
“This means that tens of thousands of senior members of the Iranian regime, including many members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, are now inadmissible to Canada,” the statement read.
“In addition to being banned from entering Canada, current and former senior officials present here may be investigated and removed from the country,” the statement read.
In the meantime, Shahriari said StopIRGC has never been busier.
“We are not going to stop doing the work we are doing. We are getting more and more reports and will continue to followup on each one,” she said.
“It’s a worry about Canada. What does that say about our country?”