Flight PS752 be remembered differently from those who died in the Air India Bombing
We now know that among the 57 Canadians who died were students, professors and doctors. The victims included children, newlyweds, and families. Canadian media and leaders have described many of them as ” extraordinary“. They were members of Canada’s vibrant Iranian community and are remembered as such at tributes and memorials across the country.
Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, told the 2,300 people attending a memorial service on Sunday in Edmonton, “Your whole country is with you, tonight, tomorrow and for all years to come.” On the day of the crash, he told the crowd: ” we share your grief.”
Trudeau described it as a “moment national pain” and recalled stories he had heard over the last few days from families affected, including that of a 10-year-old “who was confident that he would one day be Prime Minister of this country which he so loved.”
For more than 12 years, I have been researching the public’s memory of another tragic air disaster that resulted in a greater number of Canadian deaths — The Air India tragedy.
In fact, the news about PS752 brings back memories of the June 23, 1985 incident when Air India Flight 182 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in Ireland near Cork after a bomb that was hidden amongst the luggage exploded. All 329 passengers on that flight, as well as the crew, were killed. According to the official investigation by Public Safety Canada, 280 Canadians were among them, with the majority coming from Indian-Canadian backgrounds.
‘I felt gutted’
Nicky Mehta, a Winnipeg resident, was 13 when her uncle and aunt, as well as two cousins, died on an Air India flight. She woke up the morning after the Flight PS752 crash to find an abbreviated “deadly aircraft crashes that killed Canadians,” published in Winnipeg Free Press, which did not include Air India. She told me, “I was gutted.” It was traumatizing to read that Air India wasn’t even mentioned in the article.
In 1985, the Air India Flight 182 victims did not receive a national outpouring or a statement of solidarity. Did these victims not deserve to be “exceptional?” They were also beloved professors, doctors, engineers, homemakers, teachers, and civil servants.
Canadian Premier Brian Mulroney sent his condolences for India’s loss to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi instead of speaking directly to his citizens.
A member of the Iranian Community in Calgary lights a flame during a memorial to the victims of Flight PS752’s crash. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Todd Korol
The Air India bombing is unthinkable for many Canadians, not just Mulroney. This is because they believe that Canadian identity is synonymous with whiteness. Critics and relatives of the deceased have asked the obvious question. Would there have been so much difficulty recognizing the Air India bombing as a tragedy of national consequence if most of those who died were white Canadians rather than brown Canadians?
Crucial evidence lost
As a result of the criminal proceedings and the long-awaited federally-appointed Commission of Inquiry Into the Investigation of the Bombing of Air India, 182, there are now well-documented instances in which government officials, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the RCMP, and Canadian airport authorities have ignored, disbelieved or erased crucial evidence, including surveillance tapes of suspects who were eventually acquitted and warnings from the Indian government and Air India officials.
Many relatives of those who died in the bombings of Flight 182 testified that the government did not provide them with basic and practical support in the days, weeks, and years after the death of their loved one. They cited compounded grief due to being treated as second-class citizens because of their “Indianness.”
Sherene Razack, a sociologist, has stated that while “there are evidences that some Canadian officials have acted heroically,” systemic racism was a factor in Canada’s response to the bombings and lack thereof. She noted the following in her expert witness report to the inquiry:
It is not surprising, then, that Canadians don’t remember June 23, 1985, since the police, media, and political elites treated it as an event from afar. We were not moved as a country to transform our institutional practices because of a tragedy that we thought had little to do with us.
The families of Air India would have to lobby for 25 years before the Canadian government would claim the loved ones of the victims and the suspect perpetrators as its own.
Has Canada changed?
Has Canada changed since the national mourning over the tragedy at PS752? This time, are we truly shaken? Some news reports cite diversity and multiculturalism specialists who believe so. Others claim that there has occurred a ” 360-degree shift.” I’m curious to see what the future holds for the victims of the tragedy, as well as those of the Air India Bombings.