The York Region community gathered in numbers upward of 1,000 Monday night in Richmond Hill to grieve for the victims who died in the Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 crash when it was hit by an Iranian missile last week.
Mourners stood shoulder to shoulder, tea candles in hand, heads bowed in silence on a cold and damp January night to honour and remember all 176 people who perished aboard the jetliner, especially the seven local students and more than 20 other members of the broader York Region community, many of whom called Richmond Hill, Markham, Aurora and Newmarket home.
Tears flowed during the community vigil for the tragic loss of life that claimed entire families who were visiting family in Iran over the holidays, siblings who were travelling together, married couples, business professionals, sons, daughters, and beloved family members and friends all remembered for their extraordinary contributions to their communities.
“I’m grieving for the loss of my friends and all the victims, and I’m angry at the people who took them away from us,” said Aurora-Oak Ridges-Richmond Hill Conservative MPP Michael Parsa. “Now that the Iranian regime has admitted fault for this disaster, we must not rest until justice is served.”
That sentiment resonated with many of the community members gathered behind Dr. Bette Stephenson Centre for Learning on Regatta Avenue.
“Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!” the crowd cheered and clapped.
“Like many of you, I knew several of the victims of this tragedy. Many of those on the flight were our fellow Canadians, they were our close friends and neighbours, good parents, young children, they were renowned engineers, doctors and students, they had bright futures full of promise, friends and family who loved them, who will always love them, and they had hopes and dreams which will now go unfulfilled,” said Parsa, an Iranian-Canadian who was elected in his home riding in the 2018 provincial election and is a former director of the Iranian-Canadian Congress.
“My friends, like all of you, I have found this bitter injustice difficult to process,” he said through tears. “That’s why we’re standing here together in solidarity, to comfort each other and to try to make some sense of all this heartbreak. ...What happened to these 176 innocent people is an unforgivable crime, it’s so deeply disturbing that all those lives could be cut short in an instant and for no good reason, it’s just so senseless and I’m still stung by it, reeling from it.”
The community vigil, organized by York’s public and Catholic school boards, in partnership with York Regional Police, the City of Richmond Hill, and Regional Municipality of York, featured musical performances by students in choirs and the Enter A Capella group, as well as Persian duo Rhythm & Vibes.
Richmond Hill Mayor Dave Barrow encouraged the community to find strength in the ties between their families, friends and neighbours.
“Richmond Hill prides itself in the diversity of our people, and we must remember that there is strength in that diversity,” Barrow said. “And we must support each other and help each other during this incredibly difficult time.”
Richmond Hill MP Majid Jowhari, an Iranian-Canadian who was re-elected in the 2019 federal election, said all Canadians were “shocked and outraged” to learn that the UIA passenger plane had been brought down by an Iranian missile.
“This is truly a Canadian tragedy,” Jowhari said. “We all share in the pain and the anger. ...The loss of so many young people with their lives in front of them is especially hard to accept. If this tragedy has shown anything it’s that Canadians are remarkable people who come together in times of need to support each other.”
“You have the commitment of our prime minister and the entire government that we will continue to support you today and in the future. A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian,” he said, to which a few voices in the crowd shouted out in response, “Who is to blame?”
As the names of all the crash victims were put up on a video screen, the York public and Catholic education directors paid special tribute to its respective students and their families and friends.
“I wish I could express and truly convey what it has felt like in schools as we think about the students lost and their families, it has been a very, very difficult week gone by,” York public board education director Louise Sirisko said. “And quite honestly, this is unlike anything we have experienced here in York Region. This event is going to weigh heavy on our hearts and our schools and in our York Region community for a long time to come.”