Lessons not yet learned: reflecting on the bombing of Air India 182

Jun 23 2021, 10:05 am

Written for Daily Hive by Taleeb Noormohamed, former Director of the Review of the Bombing of Air India 182. He is a community volunteer and the CEO of a major online marketplace for apparel and home goods.

Today marks the 36th anniversary of the worst act of terrorism ever committed against Canadians – the bombing of Air India flight 182, which was blown out of the sky by Khalistani separatist terrorists, taking with it 329 innocent lives over the ocean near Ireland, and another two baggage handlers at Narita Airport. The bombs and terrorist plots were conceived and executed in Canada.

Sadly, Air India 182 is a footnote in our national story, when it should be much more.

While working for the Department of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, I had the honour and privilege to act as the Director of the Review of the Bombing of Air India 182 and Special Advisor to Bob Rae, the Independent Advisor to Minister McLellan, in the aftermath of the “not guilty” verdict in the bombers’ trial.

Our role was to identify deficiencies in Canada’s national security organizations and recommend institutional and policy changes to prevent future attacks. Most importantly, we vowed the victims would never be forgotten. This work was one small way that we could honour the memory of those who died so tragically.

Our report, “Lessons to Be Learned,” detailed the victims’ families’ anger that “this tragedy has been insufficiently understood & embraced as a Canadian event.” We worked to try and change this by memorializing each of the victims, working hand in hand with the victims’ families, who couldn’t have been more dignified or patient with us through the lengthy – and sometimes humiliating – process.

We pushed to establish June 23 as a National Day of Remembrance for Victims of Terror and to build memorials to the victims in Vancouver, Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal and in Ireland, where the plane came down to its watery grave, along with 329 innocent souls.

We built each memorial with love, and most importantly, with the guidance and direction of the victims’ families. This ought to have been an easy process – who would oppose a memorial to the victims of Canada’s most devastating terrorist attack?

Unfortunately, we learned it would not be as simple as we had hoped. When we sought to build the Vancouver memorial, there were staff of the Vancouver Park Board who fought hard against having the victims’ names included, worried about the “controversy” these names on a memorial might cause. We were only able to make the named memorial a reality by enticing the Park Board with funding to build a new play area for kids – something the Board wanted to do but couldn’t afford, to be built alongside the proposed memorial in Stanley Park. The children’s park would act as a way to remember the 86 children who perished in the bombing – but also, sadly, to incentivize the Park Board to agree to the victims’ names appearing on the memorial.

The families fought hard to explain to officials the magnitude of the tragedy and its impact. Decency eventually prevailed, but that process was yet another insult to these families who had been let down by governments at all levels, for decades, who couldn’t see this problem as Canadian. The very sight of their loved ones’ names on the memorial was perceived as controversial. I often ask myself if the response might have been different had the names been more ‘Smith’ or ‘Wilson’ instead of ‘Singh’ or ‘Lakshmanan.’

Thanks to the hard work of these family members, the memorials now stand, yet still, the Air India bombing gets nowhere near the remembrance it deserves. A plot, hatched in Canada, in the worst terror attack ever perpetrated against Canadians – 280 of them killed – and 86 children murdered. Despite that, this horror is left out of the history of Canada in our schools or universities.

Today, at a time when we are more aware than ever of the impact of systemic racism and of our own unconscious biases, the Air India tragedy stands as an important lesson from which we have so much more yet to learn.

Even though I worked on the Air India file more than a decade ago, not much time passes without my remembering this tragedy, those that passed, and those that lived, some of whom have become like family to me. Not just because of the magnitude of the tragedy and the loss of life, but because the lessons that the bombing should have taught us about our own blind spots remain outstanding.

This weekend, I was having dinner with two of the finest people I know – a couple who lost their loved ones in the Bombing and whose family I have come to know – and consider family – over the last 16 years. We were reminiscing about the past, and at the end of our meal, one of them asked me a question that I did not want to answer: “Do you think Canadians have learned anything from what happened to us?”

I wish I could say yes. I wish I could say with certainty that the victims are no longer seen as brown-skinned foreigners with strange names, who died on a foreign airline far away, but instead remembered as fellow Canadians, children, moms, dads, friends, neighbours, taken too soon.

But I can’t. Not today.

We owe it to ourselves to understand that we are not immune from prejudice, even in times of tragedy. It is imperative that we weave the narrative of this Canadian disaster into school curricula across the country, so that generations to come will understand that this was, and is a Canadian tragedy. Each and every one of the 331 people who perished on June 23, 1985, as a result of this terrorist act were, and remain, worthy of this nation’s acknowledgment.

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