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Correcting Canada's narrative
Air India bombing report a sign of collective catharsis but the chapter is far from closed.
Last Modified: 21 Jun 2010 12:14 GMT
Irish naval authorities bring debris from the Air India flight ashore [File: AFP]

Call it a collective Canadian catharsis. Last week was replete with a series of signpost events that confirm Canada's ability to come to terms with its past, including episodes that raise the spectre of overt racism.

On Wednesday, it was the launch of national hearings to enable thousands of former students of residential schools for aboriginals to come forward to tell their harrowing stories of abuse.

The abuse took place over a span of 150 years until the schools were finally closed in the 1970s, but it took Ottawa another 40 years to set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission and to acknowledge the enormous wrong that was done to the First Nations people.

'Trouble-makers'

Another commission of inquiry into the Air India bombing released its scathing report on Thursday, a full 25 years after the fact.

The downing of the Indian airliner off the Irish coast would have been seared in world memory - alongside the PanAm tragedy over Lockerbie three years later - but for the ambivalent heritage of the passengers on board. The majority of the 329 people killed were Indian immigrants who had come to Canada, become Canadian citizens and were flying to India on holiday. Most of them were not Caucasian.

Despite a rather sweeping report that took no prisoners, the findings of the commission led by former supreme court justice John Major are little solace to those who still grieve wives, husbands and children who were on the downed plane.

Bal Gupta, who has been an articulate champion for the families, said it best on Thursday when he pointed to the disdain with which he and others were treated.

"We were not allowed to meet any government minister for almost 10 years. The first time we met with the government was in 1995. We were treated like trouble-makers."

The same condescension can be gleaned from another key finding in the report: That Canadian officials dismissed Air India's requests - they called it "crying wolf" - for added security precautions at Toronto's Pearson airport, surmising that all the airline really wanted was added protection on the cheap.

A preventable tragedy

In 2005, Ajaib Singh Bagri and another man were found not guilty of murder [GETTY]

Characterising Canada's intelligence and federal police agencies as no better than bumbling Keystone cops, Major came to the conclusion that had all the dots been connected, the tragedy was preventable.

"Taken together, [the information] would have led a competent analyst to conclude that Flight 182 was at high risk of being bombed by known Sikh terrorists in June 1985."

Even though Sikhs were among the first Indians to migrate to Canada at the turn of the last century, the agents had a tough time differentiating one turbaned individual from another - to the agents, all of them looked alike.

It is this lack of basic aptitude that probably led Stephen Harper, the Canadian prime minister, to call the Major report a "damning indictment". Cynics will argue that Harper's strong words are part of some grand strategy to woo immigrant voters -roughly a fifth of the population - and thereby tip the scale in favour of winning a majority government on the hustings at the next elections.

Whatever the motivations, the prime minister can take credit for at least trying to right a historical wrong for a group of families that so desperately wanted to be treated as Canadians.

Finding the culprits

Of course, the report has recommendations about airplane and airport security, the creation of a national security czar like the Americans, and a more integrated approach to making aviation more secure, but these were givens right from the very start.

But what the report did not attempt was to find the culprits: who did this and how did it happen? As every Canadian is aware, millions of dollars have been spent on prosecuting two Sikh individuals in British Columbia only to be discharged for lack of evidence. There is no closure.

But perhaps the most intriguing finding is the credibility Major attaches to specific threats aimed at Flight 182. There was a gathering storm and lots of people were asleep at the switch, except seemingly a former top diplomat James Bartleman. He claimed to have seen a specific intelligence intercept, an assertion that led some in Canada to question his sanity. The judge found him "credible", confirming what Indian agents have said all along.

Maloy Krishna Dhar, a former Indian diplomat posted to Ottawa in the 1980s, is on the record as saying that his mission routinely tracked Sikh extremists in Canada and that he had "stumbled against (sic) a piece of uncorroborated information" pointing to a "spectacular" attack against an Indian airliner flying from Canada.

"The information was shared with Delhi, and the [Indian] high commissioner personally briefed the Canadian foreign office," he said.

'Negotiating moral relationships'

in depth

  A Canadian tragedy awaits closure
  'Errors' led to Air India bombing
  Read the report into the Air India bombing

More recently, a seasoned Canadian intelligence operative Michel Juneau-Katsuya wrote a book titled Nest of Spies (2009) about the hive of foreign agents who work in Canada.

In the context of Air India, Juneau-Katsuya, says: "This is a case in which there is troubling evidence of that country's undercover agents infiltrating Canada's Sikh community and being in contact with the principal suspects of the crime. The agents operated secretly out of India's embassy in Ottawa."

Given the murky world of spies and intelligence gathering, it was probably too much to expect the Major commission to spook the spies. To make matters worse, India and Canada were at odds diplomatically for most of the 1980s and 1990s.

Unfortunately for the families, half of the answer about what happened on June 23, 1985, lies in India.

With a government apology on its way and perhaps some financial compensation to the surviving family members, the temptation would be to treat this sad chapter as closed. That would be a terrible mistake.

As philosophy professor Alice MacLachlan of York University in Toronto, said: "The wrongs of the past, whether it's Air India, or Bloody Sunday [in Northern Ireland] or the residential schools, can't always be measured out materially or legally .... Part of dealing with the past means negotiating our moral and political relationships with each other."

George Abraham is contributing editor of Diplomat and International Canada.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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