Activist community

Tensions rise in Toronto’s Persian community as activists try to expose ties to regime in Canada

As the uprisings continue in Iran, tensions between supporters of the regime and those who aspire to revolution are felt in the Iranian diaspora.

In Toronto, anti-regime activists have moved to expose government insiders who they say are living with impunity in Canada.

“This man sent me and many other students to jail,” said Ardeshir Zarezadeh, an Iranian-born Toronto lawyer, pointing to his computer screen.

On the website of his organization, the International Center for Human Rights, the photo of Morteza Talaei, the former Tehran police chief and officer of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), seen on a carpet rolling, at a gymnasium in Richmond Hill, Ont., in January.

Since the start of the uprising in Iran, Zarezadeh has called on members of the Iranian diaspora in Canada to send him information about relatives of the Iranian regime who are visiting or living in Canada for display on his website.

They say in Iran that Canada is the regime’s paradise.— Mohammad Tajdolati, Iranian journalist based in Toronto

“We all know that many people affiliated with the Iranian regime live in Canada. They come and go.”

“They take advantage of life in Canada,” says the lawyer who spent nearly six years in Iranian prisons for his involvement in student movements.

For Mohammad Tajdolati, there is no doubt that the presence of supporters of the Iranian regime in Canada has heightened tensions within the Iranian diaspora since the beginning of the uprising.

“There is an expression in Iran that Canada is the regime’s paradise,” says the Toronto-based Iranian journalist.

Ardeshir Zarezadeh spent almost six years in prison in Iran. He is now trying to unmask those close to the regime who live in Canada. (Radio-Canada)

The activist claims to have contacted the federal government on several occasions in recent years to denounce the presence of relatives of the regime on Canadian territory, without concrete measures being taken by Ottawa.

“They tell us, ‘We know, we’re watching them’, but that’s not enough. […] That’s why we’re taking matters into our own hands,” he said.

On October 29, in a long-awaited speech from the Diaspora, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to maintain sanctions against the Iranian regime and its leaders. A promise greeted with skepticism by Zarezadeh.

You can’t do much legally, but by identifying and exposing them, you can get people to cut ties with them or their business.-Marjan

“We know that there are people today in Canada who have taken advantage of this horrible and corrupt regime and who are hiding in the middle of the community taking advantage of the opportunities that Canada offers. They are using the wealth they stole from the Iranians. We say enough is enough,” Trudeau said.

He is not the only one. It was this same frustration that prompted Marjan* (not his real name) to begin investigating supporters of the Iranian regime in Canada. The young Torontonian left Iran to escape repression.

Radio-Canada granted her anonymity because she fears reprisals against her or her family who still lives in Iran.

Marjan has launched an Instagram account and regularly posts photos and documents to expose people she considers Iranian regime insiders and their families who live in Canada. (Radio-Canada/Rozenn Nicolle)

After arriving in Canada, she says she kept her distance from her home community. The uprising in Iran, however, ignited a new flame within her. On the opiran.toronto Instagram account, she now speaks out against government insiders whose families she says live freely in Canada.

“When I see these people here, it’s like post-traumatic stress disorder for me. I see them near my house, on the street, I see their children playing freely when I didn’t have that luxury in my country,” she said.

“There’s not much you can do legally, but by identifying them and exposing them, you can get people to cut ties with them or their business.”

Even if he understands the anger of his compatriots, Tajdolti is worried about the excesses that some of their actions could cause, such as the denunciation of individuals online. “You have to be very careful because we live in a country of law. We cannot accuse someone very easily,” he warns.

Zarezadeh says he is aware of the risk of defamation. “We make sure that the information we publish is true,” he said, assuring that he will continue his fight.

Heightened tensions, broken wall of fear

Beyond the online denunciations, tensions are also crystallizing in the community. In “Little Tehran”, a neighborhood located north of Toronto and which owes its name to its large population of Iranians, certain incidents have multiplied since the beginning of the uprising.

Facing the famous Plaza Irania, in the heart of the Iranian district, a butcher’s shop has been the target of online vandalism and intimidation by Internet users accusing it of having links with the Iranian regime.

Graffiti in Farsi saying “death to the mullahs,” for example, has been painted on the walls of the Imam Mahdi Islamic Center in Thornhill, north of Toronto. The mosque was quick to refute any political allegiance.

The walls of the Imam Mahdi Islamic Center mosque in Thornhill, north of Toronto, were covered with graffiti saying, in Farsi, “death to the dictator”, “death to the mullahs” and “down with the Islamic republic”. The posts were quickly covered in paint, as seen in this image taken shortly after the incident. (Radio Canada)

The butcher and the mosque declined our offer to comment on the case.

In front of the same mosque, however, signs with the portrait of the young Mahsa Amini, whose death was the spark of the movement, have been removed, according to a video widely shared on the WhatsApp network. And still in the same place, a motorist tried to rush into anti-regime demonstrators before fleeing and being arrested by the police.

York Regional Police, which serves the territory, say they are not concerned about a possible increase in hateful acts related to the situation in Iran. However, police say they are aware of the divisions that exist within the Iranian community in the Greater Toronto Area.

According to Tajdolati, tensions have always been underlying in the community, with supporters of the two ideologies living together. What changes this time is that fear has changed sides, according to the journalist.

Mohammad Tajdolati is an Iranian-Canadian journalist, living in Toronto for thirty years and covering news from the Iranian diaspora. (Radio-Canada/Rozenn Nicolle)

“People you see on the streets now, before, they wouldn’t come to protests because they were scared,” he said, explaining that being photographed at an event like this could make difficult to travel to Iran afterwards or could make things difficult for their families back home.

“Now, he continues, the situation is so atrocious in Iran, it is so brutal, so inhumane, that these people say to themselves: ‘No, that’s enough. I want to participate, I want to do my duty as a human being, as an Iranian.”

“The wall of fear has crumbled.