Meera Nair: Remembering June 23 and the 329 people who lost their lives in the bombing of Air India Flight 182

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      By Meera Nair

      On June 23, 1985, a bomb detonated in the cargo hold of Air India Flight 182 while in midflight off the coast of Ireland. There were no survivors. Of the 329 aboard, 268 were Canadians. Over 80 were children. All 329 people were deprived of that most vital human right—the right to life—through a plot politically motivated, conceived, and carried out in Canada.

      Extremists within the Indian immigrant community, seeking revenge for human rights abuses carried out in India in 1984, conspired to murder innocent people by targeting passengers travelling to India aboard two Air India planes. Bombs hidden in baggage were checked first onto Canadian Pacific planes departing from Vancouver, travelling both west and east. The deadly baggage was then to be transferred to connecting Air India planes. By sheer luck, passengers of the western route were spared, when that bomb detonated before being loaded onto the connecting Air India flight in Tokyo. However, two baggage handlers lost their lives. The second bomb performed as intended on the eastern route, having been transferred to an Air India plane in Toronto.

      Prior to 9/11, the bombing of Air India Flight 182 was the worst act of aviation terrorism the world had ever known. Unlike 9/11, June 23 never fully entered Canadian consciousness and its history diminishes with each passing year.

      For those who have borne a depth of tragedy that most of us cannot even comprehend—the families of the victims—June 23 cannot be allowed to fade into oblivion.

      I was fortunate that my family was not directly touched by the bombing. But my parents knew at least three men who each lost his wife, and all six children between the three couples. At that time, the Indian immigrant community in Vancouver was quite small; everyone knew someone who had been affected.

      In Vancouver, before and after the bombing, those were years of harassment, intimidation, beatings, and murder. Many Canadians today likely do not know that Ujjal Dosanjh (later premier of British Columbia and then a member of Parliament and cabinet minister) was beaten to within an inch of his life for his public efforts to alert Canadian authorities to the behaviour of extremists in the community. But I remember the news footage of what Dosanjh looked like, lying in a hospital bed, after being attacked by an assailant wielding an iron pipe.

      Many Canadians likely do not know that a Canadian journalist was assassinated over these matters. Tara Singh Hayer (father of Dave Hayer who would go on to become a member of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia) was marked for murder twice. The senior Mr. Hayer had pertinent information about the bombing plots. He survived the first assassination attempt but was left disabled; he did not survive the second. I still remember Dave Hayer’s press conference where he condemned the cowardice of people who would attack a man in a wheelchair.

      When charges were finally laid against the alleged principal architects of the bombing, there was hope that justice would be forthcoming. But the trial ended in acquittals, a devastating loss for the victims’ families. Many Canadians likely do not know that the judge deemed the star witness to be not credible. She had been involved in a close friendship with one of the accused; with considerable risk to her safety, she provided testimony that he had acknowledged his culpability in the bombings. That testimony was discarded by the judge, in part because the close friendship had continued even after the revelation. I remember thinking how oblivious the judge seemed of the risk that woman would have faced, had she tried to distance herself from the accused.

      The families had repeatedly called for a public inquiry, only to have successive Canadian governments resist. Finally, 20 years after the bombing, Bob Rae (between his positions of premier of Ontario and member of Parliament) was given a mandate to determine whether there were questions that necessitated exploration and if so, what form that exploration should take. His report, titled Lessons to be Learned, was compassionate and detailed. In light of the lack of awareness of Air India Flight 182 itself today, the foreword makes for painful reading:

      “Let it be said clearly: the bombing of the Air India flight was the result of a conspiracy conceived, planned, and executed in Canada. Most of its victims were Canadians. This is a Canadian catastrophe, whose dimension and meaning must be understood by all Canadians.”

      Through Rae’s work, the long-desired public inquiry took form under the care of retired Supreme Court Justice John Major. I remember some of the televised news coverage; victims’ families and various branches of Canada’s security, intelligence, and civil services were asked questions and given an opportunity to speak. Included were two men from Ireland who had participated in the grim task of pulling bodies from the ocean. In an interview by Terry Milewski, one man said that initially he had not wanted to meet the families because “we let them down.” The incredulous tone of Milewski’s reaction still rings in my ears, “You thought you’d let them down?” An affirmative nod was followed by: “If we could have just found even one person alive.” It was poignant then and still is—the power of hope—the longing to believe that anyone could have survived the combined effects of a massive explosion, a fall of 30,000 feet, and then hours in the ocean before help arrived.

      But as had been evident to the families for over 20 years, it was Canada whose conduct had been wanting. The bombing could have been prevented. The erasure of vital wiretap evidence had compromised the trial from the start. Throughout, the strenuous effort by Canadian governments anxious to limit their liability for the bombing, combined to deny not only justice, but sheer human decency to the families.

      Justice Major’s preliminary report, The Families Remember, was completed in 2008. It ought to be compulsory reading for every member of Parliament. To know that before those 329 became victims, they were real people. They were friends, colleagues, aspiring students, professionals, business people, husbands, wives, grandparents, and children. From the little boy who used to buy milk to help an elderly neighbour, to the grandmother of the three generations taken from a single family, this was a Canadian loss of proportions unimaginable.

      In the final report, Air India Flight 182-A Canadian Tragedy,  Major also addressed the lack of recognition that this was a Canadian tragedy: 

      The fact that the plot was hatched and executed in Canada and that the majority of victims were Canadian citizens did not seem to have made a sufficient impression to weave this event into our shared national experience. The Commission is hopeful that its work will serve to correct that wrong.”

      Despite the painstaking efforts of Rae, Major, and dedicated journalists (Kim Bolan, Terry Glavin, Terry Milewski all tirelessly covered the story then, and continue to do so now), and extensive research by Dr. Chandrima Chakraborty and Dr. Milan Singh, Air India Flight 182 remains detached from our shared national experience.