Discussions of a special travel exemption to allow Iranian football players and officials to enter Canada have been slammed, even though Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had publicly denounced plans for an exhibition match with an Iranian team. continued behind the scenes last spring, new documents show.
Through the Access to Information Act, CBC News obtained weeks of communications exchanged between multiple federal departments and Canadian football in May. The message reveals new details about what unfolded before the match was called off following public and political blows.
Late May — Under pressure from Canadian families who died when Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) shot down Flight PS752 in January 2020, killing all 176 people on board — Canadian soccer have canceled an exhibition game against Iran scheduled for June. Five.
Family alleges planned game is an ‘insult’ to families seeking justice for the deaths of 55 Canadian citizens and 30 permanent residents who died when plane crash Canada Soccer wrote to the Federal Minister.
Prime Minister Trudeau personally weighed in on the issue on May 17, stating: “It was not a good idea to invite an Iranian football team here in Canada.
“But that’s what the organizers have to explain.”
“This game was a bad idea,” Trudeau told journalists on May 24.
Watch: Prime Minister Trudeau invites Iranian team to discuss Canadian football
According to an email obtained by CBC News, Canadian Soccer said in an email on May 12 that Iran had a similar playing style to one of Canada’s opponents in the FIFA World Cup, the Moroccan team. I told the government that I wanted to host.
Canadian Soccer wrote an email that day recognizing the game could raise questions, and contacted Trudeau’s office two days before announcing the match.
“We are not naive”
“We are not naive when it comes to political and social issues and questions that arise,” Football Canada General Secretary Earl Cochrane told Sports Canada in an email on May 12. rice field.
“We had a discussion with Global Affairs last week. We raised it with the PMO two days ago. They were all aware there might be objections, but they had no problem moving forward.”
On May 12, Soccer Canada sent an email to Sports Canada contacts notifying them that they had provided the PMO with a prepared media statement regarding the game and had asked government departments to do the same for Canadian soccer. Did.
The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) told CBC News last week that it did not endorse the decision of the independent sports body and that “the decision regarding this match was exclusive to Canadian football.”
look/PS752 Victim’s Families Outraged by Planned Canada-Iran Soccer Match
Cochrane said in a statement to CBC News last week that Canadian football’s normal process is to seek guidance from the government in such situations, not government approval.
“Despite the competitive sporting reasons for scheduling this match, it was a mistake for us to schedule the match…and we acknowledged the mistake and learned an important lesson,” he said. Told.
Federal officials were already discussing how to issue visas to teams to facilitate the match when Prime Minister Trudeau first voiced concerns about the match on May 17, according to emails seen by CBC News. .
On May 11, Global Affairs Canada (GAC) said it had learned of the upcoming exhibition match through the media by emailing Sports Canada, a Canadian Heritage chapter. He warned of issues related to the match, including the fact that Canadian soccer would have to pay Iran a participation fee.
The email, signed by GAC divisional adviser Laurent Dondey, also said the federal government may need to issue a “National Interest Letter to facilitate the timely entry of the Iranian team into Canada.” .
National Interest Letters are issued by federal officials to facilitate the entry of foreigners into Canada. They should only be issued in special circumstances.
The GAC also said in an email dated May 11, “If Iran’s visa failure results in Iran being unable to travel to play in Canada, the Iranian government will accuse Canada of politicizing the World Cup.” It will be used to criticize,” he warned.
“If visas are not issued, Iran could file an official complaint against Canadian football, and possibly argue that Canada should not host the World Cup in 2026,” Dondi added. rice field.
“Canadian football could be sanctioned in some way by FIFA. Canada would also lose the opportunity to play an important warm-up game.”
On May 13, Sports Canada Senior Program Analyst Anne Dionne emailed GAC and Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) individuals to obtain visas for the visiting Iranian team. I was warned that the window was closed.
Canadian Soccer have confirmed they are not facing a penalty from FIFA after canceling the match.
Visa expeditions could cause ‘problems’, officials warned
“The IRCC informed Canada Soccer on Wednesday of the normal delay in Canada issuing a visa to someone from Iran traveling to Canada,” Dionne wrote. “The normal delay is 100 days after the request was sent.” At this time, the IRCC has not received a request from the Iranian team.
“Hurrying up the request for visa issuance could lead to potential problems.”
Four days later, Prime Minister Trudeau issued his first public comment, questioning the wisdom of hosting an Iranian team.
Two days later, on May 19, the IRCC emailed Sport Canada that it was “not in a position” to issue a letter of national interest and that it would have to come from another department.
On May 20, Dionne emailed a colleague in her department, saying Global Affairs had told her the GAC’s own deputy minister would be the person authorized to issue the National Interest Letter.
May 24 — The day Trudeau told journalists the game was a “bad idea” — IRCC’s Christa Sharpe emailed Dionne saying her department had “received 58 visa applications” from Iranians. said. Canadian football showed last week what to expect!”
On May 26, Canadian football announced it was canceling the match, admitting the idea of a friendly against Iran would be “grossly divisive”. manager was in Turkey trying to obtain a visa.
The IRCC is currently not expediting the visa process, saying the game was canceled before it processed the visa application.
Global Affairs told CBC News in a media statement on Tuesday that the game was canceled before the National Interest Letter’s “administrative process for accessing requests” was completed. It is said that it was not done.
Hamed Esmaeilion is a spokesperson for a group of families of PS752 victims. His wife and his 9-year-old daughter died during the flight. He said the federal department should not have considered a visa or national interest letter for the Iranian team, calling the whole thing “unacceptable.”
“I knew that the Islamic Republic of Iran officials, people associated with the IRGC, security forces would come to this country…this is absolutely wrong,” he said. “It’s very alarming for everyone.”
Families seeking justice from the Iranian regime for the destruction of Flight PS752 have reported acts of harassment and intimidation to police. The Canadian Security Intelligence Agency (CSIS) called the report “credible” and said it was linked to Iranian agents operating in Canada and could constitute foreign interference. rice field.
The IRGC is known to have political influence over Iranian sports clubs, and victims’ families feared the regime would send representatives to Canada posing as team officials. said there is.
Denise Horak, Canada’s former acting ambassador to Iran, said the government should never have considered issuing a national interest notice to the Iranian team in the first place.
“This is a shocking abuse of the national interest notification process,” said Horak, who worked at the Canadian Embassy in Tehran from 2009 until its closure in 2012.
“They are meant to be used very sparingly and only in the most critical situations. Exhibition games with Iranians certainly do not qualify.”
“The IRGC is involved in virtually everything Iran does,” Horak said, adding that it is possible that IRGC officials and members of Iran’s Ministry of Information were planning to join the delegation coming to Canada. “It’s totally possible,” he said.
The Trudeau government is under intense pressure from the families of the PS752 squadron to take a tougher stance on the Iranian regime and list the IRGC as a terrorist organization.
These calls will only intensify as the Islamic Republic is now in its seventh week of cracking down on protests inside Iran.
Thomas Juneau, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa who specializes in the Middle East, said officials in authoritarian regimes, including Iran, have been known to use sports to tarnish their reputations.
“They can use a portion of their sports earnings to fund various activities, and in the case of Iran, that could include many things that the IRGC does, such as supporting terrorism abroad,” he said. Juno said.
Before the match was canceled, Iranian media quoted the head of the Iranian national team as saying that Canadian football would pay the Iranian football federation $400,000 for the match. , said he ultimately did not exchange money with the team.
The offices of Sports Minister Pascal Saint-Onge and Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Jolie told CBC News last week that they had expressed concern when they learned about Canadian football.
Maeva Proto, a spokesperson for Jolie’s office, said she was “very disappointed with Soccer Canada’s initial decision.” There is none.”
Canadian Football said it is following all normal protocols for international sporting events, including how visas are handled.
The football organization later met with the families of PS752 victims and said it “continues to deeply regret that our decision was not what we intended and hurt people.”