An Air India lament
Well Air India is back in the news again … kind of …
In mid-July, Ripudaman Singh Malik, the man charged and acquitted for being part of the Air India bombing conspiracy, was shot dead while he sat in his car in Surrey, BC. Shortly after the killing, a white SUV—later confirmed by CCTV footage to be in the parking lot prior to Malik’s arrival—was found completely engulfed in flames. It fit the modus operandi of a murder-for-hire hit. Two men with a history of violence are the alleged killers. While there is near unanimous consensus that this is in no way linked to the terrorist attack that happened 37 years ago, some are wondering if the murder of Malik and the investigation into the circumstances surrounding his death will tangentially resurrect an examination of the long-forgotten Air India tragedy.
Do you need some help remembering the worst mass murder in Canadian history and the deadliest act of aviation terror prior to 9/11? Here’s my personal account of what I observed that day and in the years that followed.
On June 23, 1985, the world awoke to some startling news. A plane had crashed off the coast of Ireland, killing everyone on board. The flight had left Canada the previous evening. The death count was a shocking 329 people.
I have no recollection of what I did that day (it happened to be my 21st birthday), but I do remember casting an eye toward Toronto’s airport, located minutes from my home in Etobicoke. I remember watching the planes take off and land. I remember thinking about the passengers, boarding the doomed aircraft, their fate sealed the minute the plane left the ground.
It quickly became clear that Air India Flight 182 was targeted for destruction, with a time activated, dynamite laden bomb doing the dirty work. A second aircraft was also targeted. This device went off before the bomb could be transferred onto the target plane, exploding in the baggage handling area at Tokyo’s Narita Airport, killing two and injuring four. The plan was hatched and executed by extremists in Vancouver who wanted to exact revenge on the Indian government for an attack on the holiest shrine of Sikhism a year earlier.
The Canadian media were quick to embrace two things: the senselessness of the tragedy and the idea that the attack was somehow foreign—this even though 280 of the 329 victims on Air India Flight 182 were Canadian. Most people embraced the foreign narrative. After all, this was a South Asian grievance that made its way to Canada. The conspiracy emerged from Canadians of South Asian ancestry living in Vancouver (no doubt supported by other extremists across the country) and the victims were overwhelmingly brown skinned. The plane didn’t even explode anywhere near Canada. It was certainly easy for the mainstream media to frame the attack as foreign. And, by and large, most Canadians embraced the foreign narrative and tucked the Air India tragedy into the recesses of their collective memory.
Despite the efforts of the victims’ families, a vocal minority in the law enforcement community, and some members of the media, no one has been able to break through to the dark corner where the collective memory of this period in Canada’s history resides. How does the worst mass murder in Canadian history and the deadliest act of aviation terror prior to 9/11 not grab people’s attention? What is it about this event that, for too many people, is so easy to dismiss, shelve and forget?
The Air India tragedy has haunted me for my entire adult life. As a former high school teacher, I taught students about the tragedy with most hearing about it for the first time from me. They were curious to hear how the conspirators were under active surveillance by CSIS prior to the attack. They were shocked to hear that CSIS erased most of the wiretaps garnered through this surveillance due, at least in part, to an ‘administrative error.’ They were even more shocked to hear that, three weeks before the bombing, the conspirators tested explosive material while Canada’s spy agency was watching. They wondered how only one man—the bombmaker— was convicted in the case. They also wondered how the so-called mastermind behind the bombing escaped Canada only to die in police custody in India years after the terrorist attack. Meanwhile, two of the men who were charged with being part of the conspiracy (Malik was one of them) were acquitted because the Crown couldn’t make its case. At the end of the lesson, students asked the obvious question, ‘Why have we never heard of this tragedy before?’
Sadly, for many Canadians, it is not that they have never heard of the Air India tragedy, it is simply that they have forgotten about the murder of their fellow citizens. The only inference I can draw from this dreadful reality is that white Canada (full disclosure: I am a white male of European heritage) has controlled the Air India narrative and white privilege is so strong—and so prevalent—that the tragedy has no hope of leaving the realm of the forgotten unless there is a concerted effort to acknowledge all the bad things the tragedy says about being Canadian. If Air India were front-and-centre, Canadians would have to acknowledge their passivity in the face of this non-white tragedy and—this one’s going to sting—their inability to build a truly inclusive, multicultural, and pluralistic society. We have paid lip service to being the greatest cultural mosaic in the world but continue to fail to recognize that the mosaic is predicated on non-whites staying in their lanes (those lanes drawn up by the white establishment) while the white elite maintain their stranglehold on power.
Will Ripudaman Singh Malik’s murder provide the impetus for people to revisit the Air India tragedy? Will there finally be a reckoning that causes all Canadians to see how we collectively failed the victims of Air India Flight 182? Will at least some people say, ‘Well, this Malik fellow, the one who was murdered, he was charged in that terrorist attack. I’d like to know more about that.’ One can only hope so.
The fortieth anniversary of the disaster is just a few years away. My hope is that, as a nation, we can finally admit that we failed miserably back in 1985 and continue to fail today by denying the existence of the Air India bombing. We need to recognize our shortcomings in creating the multicultural haven that we claim already exists. We need to admit that the South Asians who died on Flight 182 were not seen as Canadian and take the necessary steps to repatriate and celebrate every single one of them.
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.
Terrorism happens when a person or group feels so righteous that they are willing to surrender any sense of morality and ethics, resorting to violence to make their point. It is a twisted, psychological descent that is as mysterious as it is terrifying. However, one thing is certain, a terrorist isn't born overnight. A person doesn’t just snap and turn to terrorist violence. They grow and evolve in a climate of hate that becomes ‘normalized.’
This is part of the message that CSIS Director David Vigneault delivered when speaking at the University of British Columbia recently. His point of reference was not some far off terrorist cell in a foreign land. Instead, he was referring to the emergence of hate-filled rhetoric on social media and other online platforms. While he didn’t specifically speak about terrorism that day, he did say Canada does need to be on guard against the normalization of hate and how rhetoric can inspire violence.
Canadians should be wary of the current climate that sees hateful rhetoric simply dismissed as 'crazy.' They should be more vigilant in challenging things said in a spirit of division and derision in the hopes of stemming the descent toward extremism. Vigneault is warning our nation: it starts with rhetoric and, if left unaddressed, could lead to violence. In this case the violence could come in the form of domestic terrorism.
Let's hope Vigneault's warnings are just the vigilant perspective of the country's top spy caught up in a world of perpetual threats.
Sources that tell the story of the Air India tragedy. This is the most complete list I could come up with. If you have more resources to share, please contact me @ email@example.com.
Blaise, Clark and Bharati Mukherjee. The Sorrow and the Terror: The Haunting Legacy of the Air India Tragedy. Penguin Books, 1987.
Bolan, Kim. Loss of Faith: How the Air India Bombers Got Away with Murder. McLelland and Stewart, 2005.
Chakraborty, Chandrima et al. Remembering Air India: The Art of Public Mourning. University of Alberta Press, 2017.
Commission of Inquiry into the Investigation of the Bombing of Air India Flight 182. Air India Flight 182: A Canadian Tragedy. Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada Ministry of Public Works and Government Services, 2010.
Jiwa, Salim and Donald J. Hauka. Margin of Terror: A Reporter’s Twenty-Year Odyssey Covering the Tragedies of the Air India Bombing. Key Porter Books, 2006.
McAndrew, Brian and Zuhair Kashmeri. Soft Target: How the Indian Intelligence Service Penetrated Canada. Second Edition. James Lorimer and Company Ltd., 1989.
Rae, Bob. Lessons to be Learned. Public Safety Canada,2005.
Saklikar, Renée Sarojini. Children of Air India: Un/Authorized Exhibits and Interjections. Habour Publishing, 2013.
Badami, Anita Rau. Can you hear the nightbird call? Vintage Books, 2007.
Viswanathan, Padma. The Ever After of Ashwin Rao. Random House Canada, 2014.
That’s all I can find in terms of books. By way of comparison, there were so many books written about 9/11 in the decade after that event that The Guardian newspaper narrowed the field to the “20 best books written about 9/11.” The events of September 11, 2001, have been examined from almost every angle. The events of June 23, 1985, despite the best efforts of the authors listed above, have received shockingly little attention.
I count myself among the overwhelming majority of Canadians opposed to the recent anti-government protests against the mandates and restrictions due to the pandemic. The protesters (for the life of me I can't figure out what they are actually protesting) have been using the word 'freedom' willy-nilly and I can't help but scratch my head at their methods and motives. Here are a few things that are driving me a little batty.
First, the protesters stole our flag. I really don't like feeling sickened by the sight of OUR FLAG being displayed in a truck, car or house window in support of a cause that over 70% of Canadians strongly disagree with. Most of us support the mandates (albeit we are tired and frustrated with them). Most of us are vaccinated. I just wish the so-called protesters would leave the Canadian flag out of it. The flag is a symbol of unity. The flag is a banner for our ideals. The flag is an emblem that proclaims Canada as a just and noble nation. Let all Canadians share this symbol for the values it represents—don't hijack it for a cause that is not only fallacious, but is also slowly disappearing. The mandates are lifting. All that has ever been required over the course of the pandemic is patience. Clearly the protesters ran out of patience and this has caused far too much civil unrest.
Second, let's talk about FREEDOM. All Canadians have sacrificed their freedom in the interests of public health in order to thwart the spread of COVID-19. Yep, sometimes you have to take a step back and give something up so that the collective—our society—can advance. While protesters were hopping in their trucks and cars and advancing on Ottawa to fight for their 'freedom', the vast majority of Canadians were enjoying the health benefits of getting the vaccine (national vaccination rate: 86% with one dose; 81% with two doses). These Canadians were also, by and large, honouring the mandates—a tangible action that has actually restored our collective FREEDOM. The efforts made by vaccinated Canadians has worked. The mandates are being lifted and society is on the road to a semblance of normalcy. Freedom is returning because over 80% of the population got the jab, not because of the misguided efforts of protesters!
Third, there is such a thing as the common good. The protesters have been accused of sedition (inciting rebellion against the government) and anarchy (creating disorder to undermine those in power). To some degree this is true, and that is why Trudeau and company opted to impose the Emergency Powers Act. Regardless of how you feel about this choice (I personally think existing laws could have been used to bring the situation under control), protesting with the sole purpose of removing a government from power is dangerous. There were points to be made by protesters (when did the the vaccination rate move from 80% being a huge public health win to 100% of Canadians having to be vaccinated?), but the minute they called for the head of Trudeau and his removal from office, they lost their credibility. This opened the door to accusations of sedition and anarchy. They were staging a coup. Instead, if they at least tried to make an argument for the common good, and showed how their position fits into this ideal, they might have won some respect. The fact of the matter is this: if things keep going the way they're going, the mandates will be gone by the summer. The roughly 20% of unvaccinated Canadians will be coexisting with the 80% who have been vaccinated. We'll be sitting beside each other at restaurants, in bars, and on public transit. The same people who were never going to get the jab are going to share the same space with the people who got the jab. If they'd just been a little more patient, the protesters would have saved themselves from the embarrassment of being false champions of freedom and enemies of the welfare of their fellow citizens (ie. the common good).
Fourth (don't worry, I know I am preaching to the choir here and those opposed to this post have already clicked away), didn't the so-called 'freedom' protests of the winter of 2022 look like White Canada's Last Stand? In the news coverage I watched, I didn't see one person of colour among the protesters. This is not to say that people of colour were not upset by the mandates and restrictions because the data suggests that people of colour were disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and suffered the most economically because of the government restrictions. Instead, what we saw in the protests was a large contingent of very angry white folks spouting vitriol at anyone who dared stand in their way. This is very un-Canadian. It is not patriotic. While white Canadians have clung to power for decades (centuries?), immigration has kept our economy humming. Most immigrants coming to this nation over the past half century have been people of colour. The protesters should show a little respect for the sacrifices these brave Canadians have made and rein in their anger.
Finally, I don't appreciate the Canadian flag being coopted for the protesters ill-conceived purposes. I am sorry, but they need to give us back our flag. Please.
(The 'sorry' and the 'please' are brought to you by the people of Canada—we've been apologizing and pleading since 1867).
In November 2012, Dr. Bal Gupta, whose wife, Ramwati, was killed in the bombing of Air India Flight 182, appeared before the Public Safety and National Security Committee in Ottawa. He opened has testimony with this statement: "... it has been my misfortune to have been coordinator and chair of the Air India 182 Victims' Families Association from 1985 onwards." He goes on to lend his support for new anti-terrorism legislation in Canada before providing a poignant and heartbreaking account of the Air India tragedy. Dr. Gupta puts the event into perspective:
Click on the button below to read Dr. Gupta's full statement.
When I speak or write about the Air India tragedy, I tend to get very passionate (even preachy) about how we failed the victims through a botched investigation and a collective, national indifference to what happened. I realize that this isn’t entirely fair to the people who did respond appropriately to the tragedy from the eighties to the present.
While passion and anger are appropriate at times, I have been counselled (sometimes overtly and sometimes through passive suggestion) that there are times when a more subdued tone needs to be employed. Speaking in sweeping indictments is often not helpful.
This has been revealed to me over the years through a few key encounters and reflection on the entirety of the Air India story.
This is why I need to be mindful to watch my tone at times. There are plenty of people who have given their all to understanding what happened in 1985. There are many who have used their broken hearts to appropriately mourn the lives lost. And there are many who will not let our nation forget what happened on June 23, 1985.
In 2020, George Floyd was killed by police outside a Minneapolis deli. The video of his last moments spawned worldwide protests against the systemic racism that forms the undercurrent of so many societies. In the summer after Floyd's death, Canadian School Counsellor magazine asked me to write a story about racism in Canadian schools. Writing the article forced me to look at my own privilege as a white male living a cozy existence in Canada. This article was picked up by at least one school board in their efforts to train staff in identifying implicit bias and acknowledging the systemic racism that still pervades our education system.
Click on the button this link or the button below to read the story.
My Father's Secret wasn't always the name of my novel. For the longest time I stubbornly clung to the title A Nation's Shame. My wife was the first person to review my manuscript. She suggested I change the title because it didn't quite sit right with her. She thought it sounded too academic. Like a fool, I dismissed her concerns.
I went through the initial planning phase for the novel with my design team and they came up with the cover mockups above. I told them I wanted a Canadian flag and an open sea included in the design. When I shared the covers with my closest advisors, the middle cover got the thumbs up (I liked the one on the far left). However, two of my advisors felt strongly that the title needed to be changed. From their perspective, A Nation's Shame didn't sound like a work of fiction. To them, when you superimpose the title onto the cover art that I had selected, the book looked more like an government report than a novel. In other words, they agreed with my wife's position—the one I dismissed after she read my draft manuscript. Now I had two different sources telling me the title I coveted was a bust. This created a bit of a crisis for me. Here I was in the design phase of a self-published book and my title had to go.
This wasn't a very pleasant experience for me. It took a few days, and quite a few emails to my advisors—and even more discussions with my wife (who I now refer to as my business manager)—before we settled on My Father's Secret. I actually came up with the title while I was laying down for a nap, trying to calm the stresses that had come with the scrapping of A Nation's Shame. My business manager/wife rejected a lot of titles, but when I said My Father's Secret, she responded, "That could work." I dare not dismiss her a second time.
For the record, my wife has been my number one supporter through the entire process of writing and publishing the novel. While I was a bit of a stubborn fool early on, I came to rely on, and take to heart, her advice. If it weren't for her guidance, I would have given most of my books away or charged people a pittance. She kept me on point. And she was right to do it. I am not just saying this: she is the yin to my yang. I would be a floundering idiot without her there to balance things out for me.
As it turns out (I have shifted back to the title of my book now), calling the book My Father's Secret was the right move for two reasons.
Put in the context of our entire national history, the Air India tragedy, the inspiration behind My Father's Secret, constitutes a colossal failure of government and law enforcement to do the right thing. It is also a massive, collective failure of the Canadian people to do more than pay lip service to multiculturalism, and to recognize that the bombing of those Air India planes was an attack on the fabric of our nation. I maintain that Canadians should be ashamed that the terrorist bombings and mass murder of 331 people has been relegated to a mere footnote in our nation's history. To date, there has been no true reckoning for what happened in and around June 23, 1985.
However, when the Air India tragedy is juxtaposed with what Canada has done to Indigenous people, a compelling argument emerges wherein our white, mostly male, predecessors participated in a long, drawn out form of genocide. We tried to 'take the Indian out of the Indian.' We tried to destroy families and First Nations. An honest account of our history demonstrates that we tried to make the Indigenous people disappear. Thank god we failed.
While the Air India tragedy is shameful (and I will continue to vigorously defend this position), the attempted long-term subjugation and elimination of Indigenous people is our nation's shame.
Unfortunately, this title is misleading. It is my position that the bombing of Air India Flight 182 was NOT accompanied by a systemic coverup by the Canadian government. Bear with me as I explain.
While I was writing My Father’s Secret, I endeavoured to provide as faithful a re-imagining of the Air India tragedy as I could. However, as a work of fiction, where I was trying to come to grips with how this terrible incident could occur, I kept confronting a singular problem: the bombing was orchestrated by people of South Asian ancestry based on grievances emanating from South Asia with people of mostly South Asian ancestry representing the victims of the tragedy. In 1985, this dynamic allowed Canadian authorities—and Canadian citizens—to reject our warm embrace of multiculturalism and assume a position akin to, “Look what these Indians did”—this despite the fact that 85 percent of the victims were Canadians. All the dominant group in Canada were willing to accept was that this was a ‘brown on brown’ crime that could be shelved with the hope that the ‘problem’ would just go away.
Let’s not split hairs hear. A few people have gone to great lengths to talk about language differences (Punjabi and Hindi are clearly not English or French) and immigration status (some of the victims were landed immigrants). If the state recognizes someone as Canadian, they’re Canadian and this cannot be rationalized away simply because of the colour of a person’s skin.
Now back to the coverup idea. In My Father’s Secret, the only way to make the story work was to have an official coverup, complete with destruction of evidence and murder. If I was faithfully retelling the Air India story, I would have written the story without a coverup. Why? Because there was no need to cover things up because everything happened in plain sight.
Do you think I am exaggerating? How else do you explain the fact that:
I could go on (and on and on) with the things missed in the Air India tragedy. However, this sampling should provide a startling example of how, when we’re not paying attention, tragedies of unspeakable proportions can happen right in front of us. The points above speak to neglect, incompetence and implicit bias against Canadians who look a certain way. Sadly, there was no need to coverup the Air India bombing because the level of disengagement from the tragedy, both in leadership and in the collective response of citizens from coast to coast, allowed the perpetrators to carry out the bombing in plain sight with no meaningful response from the true North strong and free.
Check out Terry Milewski's perspective on the global Khalistan movement and the part it played in the Air India bombing. Mr. Milewski goes in depth into the Air India investigation around the eleven minute mark. According to Milewski, the Air India investigation was "an absolute fiasco."
Sean Patrick Dolan's Blog
Sean Patrick Dolan is the author of the thriller, My Father's Secret, inspired by the Air India Bombing.