Jordan: There are lots of things that I didn’t learn in school. And most of those things are probably my fault, but everybody who reads knows that there are also things that just aren’t taught for all sorts of reasons. And so every once in a while I learn about a subject that I should have already known about, that we should all have known more about, but most of us discovered on our own.
And that, to be honest, pisses me off, especially when the subject can literally be defined as the biggest mass murder in Canadian history. And I learned about it from an inquiry two decades later?
It makes me wonder why, but of course, if you follow what is, and isn’t considered part of Canadian history, you probably have a sneaking suspicion why.
So today, on the 35th anniversary of the Air India tragedy, we will talk to someone who has fought to reframe the deadly attack from an international story to a deeply Canadian one. And yes, in a perfect world she would not have to do this work, but we don’t live in that world. So we’re going to learn a little bit today about why a terrorist attack that killed dozens of Canadian children was a ‘foreign incident’.
And we’ll talk about what we’ve done since then to make sure that the next tragedy isn’t framed the same way.
I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. This is The Big Story. Chandrima Chakraborty is a professor of English and cultural studies at McMaster university, where she’s also the director for the Centre For Peace Studies. Hello Chandrima.
Chandrima: Hi Jordan.
Jordan: Why don’t we begin if you can, because this is all about the stuff that maybe we’re not being taught in history class, can you explain to me what was the Air India bombing in 1985?
Chandrima: So on June 23rd, 1985. A bomb detonated on Air India flight 182 that had left Toronto Pearson International Airport heading towards India, and it killed 329 people, all passengers and crew onboard. And most of these passengers were of Indian heritage and there was another bomb that was intended for Air India flight 301, and that detonated while in baggage transfer at Tokyo’s Narita international airport and it killed two baggage handlers. So you had 331 people that died on June 23rd, 1985, as what is known as the Air India bombings. And perhaps I will also add that it is not just the day in terms of the bombing, but also the aftermath. Because the air India bombings resulted in the longest and the most expensive criminal investigations in Canadian history.
There was a judicial public inquiry that concluded in 2010 that this bombing was a Canadian tragedy and the largest mass murder in Canadian history. And this was followed by the federal government’s public apology in 2010 for the institutional failings to prevent the bombings and for the mistreatment of families in its aftermath.
So it is sort of the day, June 23rd, but also what followed after that, I would describe us the Air India tragedy.
Jordan: Well tell me a little bit more about what happened after that, because that’s the stuff that I don’t know, except for piecemeal reports. Why was the process of seeking justice botched so badly?
Chandrima: I think the initial framing of the bombing started the problem. The initial characterization of the tragedy by the Canadian government was that it was a foreign tragedy. The understanding was that some Sikh Indians. had migrated to Canada, carrying their anger and grievances against the Indian state with them.
And this resulted in the bombing of the Air India flight 182. And the victims who perished were also seen as Indian immigrants, not Canadians. So the framing of the tragedy at the very beginning, was that it was a foreign tragedy. And after September 11th, 2001, and the attacks in the United States, there was an effort to reframe the Air India bombings from a foreign tragedy to the single worst act of terrorism in Canadian history.
So what happened was it was the terrorist act that got incorporated into the public’s memory, but not the grief of those who lost loved ones. And just sort of the dismissal of the bombing as something not Canadian, also resulted in how the investigations proceeded. So the public inquiry was set up in 2006 and the final report was submitted in 2010.
And that revealed that there were two bomb laden suitcases, which were checked in at Vancouver airport, which means the bombings were planned in Canada. And the two suspects who were put on trial were also Canadians from British Columbia, both were acquitted. Only one person who made the bombs was convicted of manslaughter in 2003, and then was released in 2016.
So for families, there has been a real lack of justice in how the investigation’s proceeded and what the result of the criminal investigation was. So a feeling of justice not being made possible because the investigations were botched. So for instance, the public inquiry report talks about a mishandling of evidence by the RCMP and CSIS. Critical tapes were erased. Leads were not followed up. Key witnesses were not given protection. And also the lack of cooperation between these two agencies in terms of knowledge sharing, resource sharing, that then consequently resulted in the failure of the justice system to charge those involved in perpetrating this act of terror.
Jordan: You’ve talked to a number of the families of the victims. What do they describe feeling in the immediate aftermath, but then in the next few years before the inquiry began and before anybody was acquitted, just the immediate years following?
Chandrima: I would say forsaken and forgotten. Because the Canadian government, as I said, treated the crash as a foreign tragedy and that immediately pushed the bombing to the margins of national consciousness. It immediately thwarted any attempt to publicly mourn, collectively mourn, come together as a community. So although you had innocent lives, who were cut short on June 23rd, 1985, the victims were not only those who died in the plane crash, but also those who had to live with this loss. And in addition, struggle to claim their place as Canadians. So for the families, the fact that they did not have their government beside them, with them at this moment, when they felt that they needed them the most, was feeling abandoned and forsaken. The loss was not recognized by the Canadian government or fellow Canadians as a loss worthy of public mourning.
So I would say intense grief, of course, as I said, with the loss of family members, but also the grief that they had to prove that they belonged in this country.
Jordan: How has the tragedy been memorialized in Canada?
Chandrima: It has. So in 2005, the government of Canada proclaimed June 23rd as the national day of remembrance for victims of terrorism.
But I’m sure that very few Canadians know about it. There have been also permanent public memorials for the victims of Air India flight 182 installed in Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa and Montreal, because that’s where the passengers came from. But again, very few know about these memorials and that they exist.
I know a colleague of mine who has been writing letters to many members of parliament and asking that before departing for their summer recess, the MPs observe a moment of silence in memory of these victims. Because the summer recess begins annually on June 23rd, and that has not gained much traction.
So yes, there have been memorialization attempts, but it has not really seeped into the public consciousness as a tragedy that is worth remembering.
Jordan: What are those memorials like that you mentioned? And what’s it like visiting them? Cause you’ve visited all of them. I believe.
Chandrima: Yeah. So the memorials are all in parks. So in Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver, et cetera, they are in parks. And so I usually go there every year for the Memorial service, depending on where I am, and usually in the Toronto Memorial. But I will also go to Ottawa if I happen to be there. Or if I attend a city for personal or work reasons, I visit.
They are not easily found. It’s hard to locate the memorial site because they are not marked on the parks map or through signage that would encourage or prompt visitors to visit. But on the anniversary, June 23rd, there are Memorial services held across the country. And then when I go there, I meet a lot of families. There are dignitaries. The mayor of the city or somebody from the Indian high commission or the Irish high commission will be there. So there are dignitaries, but lots and lots of families with children there.
Jordan: I’m going to ask you a question, which I feel like the answer is simple, but probably also deeply complicated. Why was this treated like a foreign tragedy when the vast majority of the victims were Canadian, and so many of them were Canadian children?
Chandrima: I would say that it brings up questions of who belongs to this nation, not just in terms of the passport one carries, but who is taken into the core of this nation, as belonging to Canada.
So the people on the plane, most of them were of Indian heritage. So Brown people. The plane was not an Air Canada plane. It was an Air India airplane and the plane did not blow up within Canadian soil, the plane blew up in Ireland. So there were lots of reasons that made it possible for this particular tragedy to be pushed out of the realm of Canadianness.
And as I’ve mentioned, the first framing of this tragedy as a foreign tragedy did not facilitate a conversation, a public discussion of the loss, the grief, the pain suffered by families. So Canada’s failure to, I think, internalize the loss as a tragedy affecting Canadians, then complicated the grief of mourning families and further deepened their isolation from the nation that they called home.
Jordan: Do we have any research or indications of what Canadians collectively think of this tragedy now?
Chandrima: I think things are changing. And I think particularly so with another tragedy, you remember this February, when you had the Tehran air crash, I was pleasantly surprised to see the amount of coverage and also lots of stories linking this particular tragedy back to how the Air India victims families were treated post tragedy. So I saw a lot of press coverage and you know, what was most heartening to me was to see the quick recognition of the Tehran crash as 57 Canadians lost, rather than where do they belong? Are they Iranian? Do they have permanent residence? Are they international students? So there was a quick recognition of this tragedy as Canadian. So that was a change. And I see a lot more Canadian news media covering it in terms of my students who I teach, I teach cultural representations of the Air India tragedy in my undergraduate and my graduate courses, and unfortunately, very few students know about this tragedy. When I talk to the general public, yes, as you said, yes, they’ve heard about it. There are hazy memories, but not a clear recognition of this loss as our loss, as something that is part of the public record as part of our cultural memory or our history.
So that sense of this is our story is not there in the public realm.
Jordan: How do we change that? Do we need to rewrite textbooks? Do we need to add more memorials? What’s the process of changing the way we think about the past?
Chandrima: I would say, we have memorials, right? But again, not many people know about it.
As I said, even the signage does not allow you or encourage you to go and find the Memorial site. You have to walk around the park and know that the Memorial exists to get there. There is a national day of remembrance, but again, no one knows that. So I think there has to be a public conversation.
And in my own role, as a teacher, as an instructor, that’s what I’m trying to do in trying to engage students, inform them, educate them about Canadian history. So many of my students will say, well, if this is a Canadian tragedy, it has been called a Canadian tragedy, I am Canadian, how come I had to take your course to find out about my history?
So again, this is not something that is widely taught and so yes, if it can go into textbooks in elementary schools or postsecondary schools, it depends on who’s teaching and who puts it into the course. But if it could enter into the Canadian history books, that would be awesome. That would be my hope.
In my own role, what I have tried to do is public lectures, community events, as a way of reaching communities beyond those victim’s families. I’ve also tried to engage the broader public in collaboration with families to make the family’s voices heard in the public realm.
I have done a conference in 2016, which was the 30th anniversary of the Air India bombing. So trying to bring in families, newspaper reporters, general public, students into our conversation. And I think that the press has a large role to play in this, in trying to broaden a sense of inheritance and responsibility to care for the impact of the bombings.
Our political leaders have a role to play in this and each of us as Canadians have a role to play in this. So I think it has to be a collective effort.
Jordan: I’m glad you mentioned the Tehran disaster earlier this year, because I was going to ask you to compare it, and now you kind of have, but I also want to talk about the media coverage. I’m too young to remember the coverage in the immediate aftermath of the Air India. But one of the things that struck me as great about the coverage of the community this year, was that reporters went deep into the Iranian communities in Canada and told those stories, from a point of view of the communities themselves. And I guess you’re kind of saying that those stories weren’t told. What kind of community existed in 1985 that could have told those stories if people had been listening?
Chandrima: I mean we’re talking of 1985, right? When you had one plane going from Toronto, and that’s why you had so many people all across the country killed because there was a plane that took passengers from Vancouver and there were passengers from Montreal, Ottawa.
So that’s why this particular tragedy touched so many lives across the length and breadth of this country. I mean, of course in 1985, it was a smaller South Asian community that we are talking of. We are also talking off Canada in 1985. And I think we have made strides. Of course we are not in a perfect place. There’s more work to be done, but we are definitely in a better place. If you look at the coverage of the Tehran crash, which I have looked at closely because it was not covered as an international news event in the way the Air India crash was covered. The Tehran crash was seen as an event with deep personal consequences.
So you had stories after stories, bringing news of vigils and Memorial services that were being held across the country, the newspaper reporters, as you noted, went deep and did interviews, gathering personal stories. So they were not just names and figures in the way it was with Air India. This many people died, there were 82 children under the age of 13, you had actual names and you knew who had died, and not just Canadian citizens, but also international students. Right? So in my own McMaster university, there were two students from McMaster who perished in the Tehran crash.
We had a vigil which had 250 people showing up. Didn’t happen with the Air India tragedy. You did not even have grief counseling provided to family members. It took many, many years for the prime minister of Canada to show up at the Irish Memorial service where the plane had crashed and where they have a Memorial service in Cork every year.
So lots of the families were forsaken in more ways than one. It’s how the stories were covered. Whose stories were told and how. Were there grief counseling provided? Who was there to give them support?
And you know, often when I talk to families, they will say the Irish embraced us. They opened up their homes, they opened up their churches to provide us with worship places, places to rest and food and all of that. So at number of levels, and that’s why I think newspaper coverage plays a big role in making communities, those who are not touched by that tragedy so closely, they also feel the loss depending on how the story is narrativized. So that you can see where these people came from, where they were going and what a loss for family. So it becomes a collective grief in the way that the Tehran crash had become.
And that didn’t happen with the 1985 tragedy. So even with the public inquiry, this happened in 1985, you had the public inquiry report coming up in 2010. In 2015, the RCMP still says saying that the investigation is open. So just tells you about the delay and how many years and decades the families had to fight for all of this. To be recognized as Canadians to be, to be given compensation, to be heard, to have a forum where their stories could be told. So in 2016, for instance, when I did this conference, I realized only post-conference that this was the first venue that the families had found to share their stories with each other in a public forum, but also with the Canadian public. Because before that it was the public inquiry testimony where they went in and shared their stories, but they did not have the space. And for them to see that Canadians, students, scholars, lay public, it was a free conference.
So you had people from the GTA you had, we had international speakers from Europe, from India, from the U S. And for them to see that people cared, just made a huge difference to see people in that audience, listening to the grief of families. And that was after 30 years and the grief was so palpable it felt like they had lost their loved ones yesterday. And to hear the story of losing your dad or losing your sister or losing your entire family, it really touched hearts and minds and souls. And those are the things that are needed, public outreach where people can listen to the stories so that you listen to the stories, you hear the grief and based on that response. So, listening and recognizing and naming that grief is so important.
Jordan: If someone is listening to this who like me, didn’t learn about this tragedy in school, where can they go to hear those stories now?
Chandrima: So, as I mentioned, in 2016, we did this conference. So the effort has been of course, public outreach.
That’s the whole effort of my work. So there are, McMaster has a faculty of humanities YouTube channel. So all of the videos of that conference, including the families speaking about their grief are there. So it’s free, accessible to anyone. And so that’s one resource at McMaster.
I’m also trying to create an Air India archive. So the interviews that I’m doing with families, I’m also gathering scrap books, letters, et cetera. So it will be housed at McMaster library. It’s still in process. So the effort is to preserve the stories, honour the family’s memories, but also make this scholarship available to lay audiences as well as for future researchers.
So once the Air India archive is completed or at least accessible, again, it’s a free open resource. So anybody who wants to learn about the tragedy that resource is there. And I encourage people to listen to the stories, to participate in the archive. If there are outreach events or public lectures happening or talks perhaps to participate in, those events might be one way of educating ourselves and learning new things and learning some of the other things.
Jordan: Chandrima thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today and for a fighting for Canadian history.
Chandrima: Thank you so much Jordan, I deeply appreciate you taking the time to do this.
Jordan: Chandrima Chakraborty of McMaster university. That was The Big Story. If you’d like more, you know where they are by now at thebigstorypodcast.ca. Did you know you can also find us at frequencypodcastnetwork.com? You can also find us on Twitter @thebigstoryfpn, and you can email us. And we do love to hear from you, myself or Claire reads every one. The email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And the one thing we like even more than emails are ratings and reviews on the podcast player of your choice, Apple or Google or Stitcher or Spotify, or any one of dozens of others, they don’t all let you leave reviews, but if they do, you should definitely tell us what you think.
Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, we’ll talk tomorrow.
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