Canadian naiveté and the threat of terrorism
Imagine a terrorist attack perpetrated on Canadian soil by Canadians that would take hundreds of lives. Imagine victims coming from almost every province in the federation. Imagine a shocking number of children dying. Image families ripped apart, left to mourn in isolation.
Here’s the problem: this is not the stuff of imagination. This attack happened on June 23, 1985.
The real accounting of that terrible day goes as follows: Extremists put bombs on two planes leaving Vancouver, one bound for India via Tokyo, the other heading to the same nation via Toronto, Montreal and London. One bomb exploded as baggage handlers moved luggage from the connecting flight at Narita Airport, killing two and wounding four. Less than an hour later, Air India Flight 182 exploded off the coast of Ireland, killing all 329 on board. It is the worst mass murder and largest terrorist attack in our nation’s history—proportionally as large as the 9/11 attacks on the United States.
As a former high school history, I can tell you that, over the years, when I asked students about the worst terrorist attack in Canadian history, almost no one was able to answer the question. Relegated to a footnote, Air India has failed to inspire the outrage, empathy, and attention it deserves.
Maybe this is because of when it happened. Perhaps, in 1985, white privilege was so pervasive that the incident could be too easily shelved and labeled as ‘foreign.’ Certainly, Canada’s reaction would indicate that this was the case. Prime Minister Mulroney called Indian Prime Minister Rajeev Gandhi to express his condolences, even though 280 of the 329 victims were Canadian. When family members arrived in Cork, Ireland, to identify the remains of their loved ones, Irish authorities greeted them. There were no Canadian representatives there to comfort the families. It took the Canadian government six months to confirm the plane was bombed, something that was plainly obvious when Flight 182 went down.
While the man believed to have built the bombs was convicted of manslaughter (in 1991 for Narita and 2005 for Air India Flight 182), the ringleader escaped Canada, dying at the hands of Indian police in 1992. Inexplicably, CSIS, who were closely monitoring the movements of the soon-to-be terrorists, erased 80 percent of the wiretaps of the conspirators speaking. They said it was part of their protocol and blamed the RCMP for not securing the tapes in a timely fashion. Meanwhile, it took fifteen years to charge the other alleged conspirators (which ended in an acquittal) and over twenty years for the government to agree to a full public inquiry—this after years of pleading by the families of the victims.
How do you explain this series of missteps other than to admit that the victims and perpetrators were not valued as full-fledged Canadians? Instead, one can only conclude that they were judged—even if only unconsciously—by the colour of their skin and their South Asian ancestry.
Appearing before a parliamentary committee looking to beef up Canada’s anti-terrorism laws in 2012, then spokesperson for the Air India Victims’ Families Association Dr. Bal Gupta spoke of the victims, “They came from almost all religious backgrounds, including atheist, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Muslim, Sikh, and Zoroastrian. Eighty-six victims were children under the age of 12. Twenty-nine families—husband, wife, and all children—were wiped out. Thirty-two persons were left alone; the spouse and all the children were gone. Seven parents in their forties and fifties lost all their children, and two children, about the age of 10, lost both parents.” Why is this terrible event still not front of mind for Canadians?
I can only imagine Dr. Gupta’s grief. I can only imagine how betrayed he and the families have felt over the years. And I can only imagine how exhausted he is—having begged for justice from a nation that spent years in denial as the largest mass murder and worst terrorist attack in it’s history remained a tiny blip on the national radar.
On this National Day of Remembrance for Victims of Terrorism, let’s remember Air India. Let’s reconcile with our failures. Let’s make a commitment to giving this tragedy the place it deserves in our national consciousness. And let’s admit that it is our naiveté that could open the door to terror once again. As Dr. Gupta said when appearing before that parliamentary committee, “… make no mistake, the victims of the next terrorist act could be anybody. Terrorism cares little about the victim’s colour, creed, gender, or age.”
Note: This blog post was published in Collingwood Today and picked up by a number of Village Media affiliates. To my knowledge this is the only Air India memorial column published on June 23, 2022. I'd love to be corrected.
Sean Patrick Dolan's Blog
Sean Patrick Dolan is the author of the thriller, My Father's Secret, inspired by the Air India Bombing.