Air India tragedy, 36 years later: ‘What has not been acknowledged is the grief’

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June 23 is the anniversary of the largest mass murder in Canadian history.

On that day in 1985, Air India flight 182 disintegrated at 31,000 feet over Ireland after a bomb exploded on board, killing 329 people, including 268 Canadians.

The deadly act of aviation terrorism — surpassed only by the carnage of 9/11 —wiped out whole families and decimated hundreds of others; 86 children were among the dead.

Although today there are memorials to the victims of Air India 182 in Vancouver, Ottawa, Montreal, and Toronto, the initial response in Canada 36 years ago was that it somehow had nothing to do with us.

The overwhelming personal loss involved was barely acknowledged, brushed off as someone else’s problem and dismissed as a non-Canadian issue.

That further isolated the families of the dead and left them to carry the burden of what happened on their own, with no community or national recognition for at least 20 years.

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In fact, Canada was very much involved in this event, and not in a good way. A litany of security failures, RCMP and CSIS screw-ups and a dog’s breakfast of an investigation and subsequent trials were outlined in a report from retired Supreme Court justice John Major.

Thereafter, on the 25th anniversary of the tragedy in 2010, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized to the families of those killed “for the years during which your legitimate need for answers and indeed, for empathy, were treated with administrative disdain.”

It’s because of Air India 182 that Canada marks June 23 as National Day of Remembrance for Victims of Terrorism.

At the time, however, “This did not percolate into Canadian memory as a loss,” explained Chandrima Chakraborty, a professor in the Department of English and Cultural Studies and director of the Centre for Peace Studies at McMaster University.

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“It was depicted as Indian immigrants bringing their fights into Canada, a quick relegation of an incident that took place far from home, in Irish air space, involving mostly brown people on an Air India flight, not an Air Canada flight,” Chakraborty added.

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“It was all pushed away from the national consciousness that these were Canadians!

“And so it has never resided in our hearts.”

There was no public mourning, said Chakraborty. “There was a failure amongst us to internalize the loss.”

When in 2020 Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 was shot down after leaving Iran with 176 onboard, many of them Canadian, the entire country acknowledged the loss.

With Air India, “what has not been acknowledged is the grief,” said Chakraborty.

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“What’s important now is how we tell these stories and make the next generation aware of what happened, how we create this collective sense of community so the loss is not just tied to individuals but to the nation.”

Chakraborty writes about it, teaches it, and is creating an Air India Digital Archive.

The archive grew out of her interviews with Air India family members, who showed her boxes of clipping, letters, photos and other artifacts from the event itself, as well as personal mementos of the dead.

Many asked her to take the materials and preserve them.

“These are years of memories, carefully collected. There are interviews that will be transcribed and posted, scrapbooks, photos, artwork — all digitally archived so anyone can access the materials online,” Chakraborty said.

The Air India archive is being created in collaboration with the families themselves and with the The Air India Victims’ Families Association.

This will help remedy the apathy of the past, Chakraborty said. It will help ensure that the public does not forget the grief of their fellow Canadians.

“Until we acknowledge the past, we cannot build a better future. Even if inconvenient, this is our shared collective history.”

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