18 May 2007


Air India

India at Flickr.comOne week before I turned 16 years old in 1985, a bomb set here in Vancouver by terrorists earlier that day killed two baggage handlers at Tokyo Airport. Less than an hour later, its twin exploded in the cargo hold of an Air India Boeing 747 flying near Ireland. That bomb destroyed the plane and killed everyone on board, more than 300 people, most of them Canadians.

Those events have stained Canada, and British Columbia, and Vancouver, ever since. They have been a shadow over our beautiful city my entire adult life. Now, after 22 years of botched investigations, erased evidence, the deaths of prime suspects, one plea bargain, and a momentously expensive yet ultimately unsuccessful attempt to convict two other men in the case, a new Commission of Inquiry is making it clear that the bombers could have been stopped.

The early 1980s were the peak years for Sikh separatism in India, and high-profile killings and violence around the issue were in the news, not only in India, where Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's own Sikh bodyguards assassinated her in 1984, but also here in Vancouver, where we were the hotbed of Sikh extremism outside the Punjab. We have a huge Indian community here, much of it Sikh, and there were great divisions at the time about the idea of Khalistan. The divisions were far from peaceful.

Violence predated the bombing, and followed long after it, even as the Sikh independence movement in India lost steam. For instance, a man with a lead pipe tried to kill prominent anti-violence Sikh lawyer Ujjal Dosanjh in a parking lot (Dosanjh would later become premier of our province and federal cabinet minister). Other thugs first shot and permanently disabled, and then a decade later killed Tara Singh Hayer, a newspaper publisher who also spoke out against violence in the name of Sikhism.

Back in 1984 and 1985, there were marches and meetings and protests throughout the Vancouver area on both sides of the debate. Some rallies included clear incitements to kill Hindus, to avenge the sacking of the Golden Temple, to undertake terrorist acts. Canadian security and police services had several men under surveillance, and yet, as the Air India Inquiry is now showing, both they and the various levels of security at Canadian airports and from Air India itself missed numerous chances to catch the criminals and stop the bombing plot, or find the explosives before they hurt anyone.

Why? I think we, as a country, a province, and a city, were naive. In 1985, Vancouver remained a bit of a sleepy backwater. Expo 86 was still a year away, the glass city of condo towers and movie shoots a decade off. We were at the tail end of our first hundred years as a somewhat British outpost on the edge of the continent. Today in 2007—when you ride a bus or walk a street in our polyglot city, when you're just as likely to hear Bhangra or Cantopop blasting from a passing car as heavy metal or hip-hop, when everyone's lunchtime takeout is sushi or butter chicken—that's hard to remember.

To be honest, governments and police and the general public treated the conflict between Canadian Sikhs in the '80s as a foreign problem, and Indian problem. It was not. It was a Canadian problem. And I don't think that very many people believed in our hearts that we Canadians could germinate terrorists capable of such mass murder. But we did, and worse yet, we didn't stop them.

It has always been a puzzle that after the bombing, the Canadian Prime Minister's first message of condolence was to India. It should have gone the other way—most of those who died were of Indian ancestry, yes, and were on their way to India, but they were Canadian citizens. The loss was ours, yet our own government didn't even see it.

I hope we've learned and grown since then. I think we've had to, because this city continues to mix it up, so that we can't let either the joys or the problems seem to be foreign ones, when they are really ours.

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