"This is the rise of the poor in the cities and the countryside, the rise of women and youth who have nothing to lose,” shouted one protester as dozens gathered on a cold, rainy Saturday in Vancouver’s Robson Square.
The demonstrators chanted against the government in Iran, and called on the Canadian government to support the uprising at home.
On December 28, protests began in the city of Mashhad, Iran's second-largest city, before spreading across the country. Sparked by economic stagnation and rising food and gas prices, demonstrators soon began demanding the downfall of the government.
“We want to grab international attention, because if the Iranian government has its way, and if people do not win this fight, the government will arrest and kill thousands,” Nasim Sedaghat, one of the organizers of the Vancouver demonstration, said.
“So many cities are rising up that the government does not know where to disperse the army and where not to, but it is waiting for an excuse for a massive crackdown”.
Sedaghat said that the Canadian government has a role to play in backing up the people on the streets.
Global Affairs Canada issued a statement on December 30 saying “Canada is encouraged by the Iranian people who are exercising their basic right to protest peacefully.” The statement also asked the Iranian authorities to honour “democratic and human rights, adding that “Canada will continue to support the fundamental rights of Iranians including the right to freedom of expression.”
However, Canada could do more to show solidarity with Iranian protesters, she said.
“The best thing Canada and other governments can do is to put pressure on the Iranian government to free political prisoners,” Sedaghat asserted. Governments should also block high officials’ attempts to send the money and gold “they robbed from the people” out of Iran.
The rally in Vancouver also put a spotlight on struggle of women, the LGBT community, minorities, workers, and youth. Slogans denounced the Islamist authorities, who have been in power for 39 years, since the Iranian revolution in 1979.
“Women have lots to say,” Sedaghat said. Since the foundation of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, the state has placed many restrictions on women's freedom, and has enacted legislation forcing them to cover themselves, and dictating how they should act.
Sedaghat listed other systemic problems that drove people to the streets. Many workers had not been receiving their wages for months, she said. When they went on strike, they were jailed and beaten. Young people are angry as well for lack of job opportunities, with unemployment at 12 per cent. Many university educated young people see no opportunity for jobs, or have to work for under the minimum wage.
“The Western media may say [the uprising] is because of prices have gone up, but what is happening is that people were very hopeful that the government of President Hassan Rouhani will bring new changes,” said an Iranian student studying in Vancouver, who preferred not to be named due to security concerns. “And all the hope people had when he was elected in 2013 has now turned into frustration.”
“Two years ago, when a nuclear agreement was made between Iran and the United States, Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif were the heroes of the country. There were hopes that the agreement will improve the lives of people,” he said.
“The nuclear agreement only lifted the nuclear-program-related sanctions. International banks still are not willing to do any investment in Iran because they are fearful that they will get punished by the U.S. There are still sanctions related to the ballistic missile program and human rights. So international companies and banks are not willing to come to Iran,” he said.
Back in Maragheh city, protesters were chanting slogans on Saturday against Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader who holds most of the power in the Islamic Republic.
According to official numbers, 22 have been killed and 1,000 have been arrested in the protests, although people believe the real numbers are higher. The government has also blocked access to internet services and social media, blaming popular apps for feeding unrest in the country.
“People are angry over years and years of oppression, and the government’s inability to solve their problems. People see no future, they cannot even see their next meal,” Sedaghat said. “We are hoping for a general strike, until the government steps down”.