Meera Nair: Air India tragedy grows dimmer in Canadian memory with each passing year

Opinion: The Canadian families aboard Air India Flight 182 on June 23, 1985, sought the comfort of a summer with their families. A moment of silence on June 23 to remember them ought to be an annual tradition in Parliament

Fresh flowers on the Air India memorial wall at Stanley Park.

As June 23 approaches, few Canadians will recognize it as the anniversary of Canada’s worst instance of domestic terrorism. Many do not know that on that date in 1985 a bomb tore through the cargo hold of Air India 182 while in mid-flight, killing all 329 aboard. Even fewer will know that among the dead were 280 Canadians.

While June 23 was eventually declared the National Day of Remembrance for Victims of Terrorism, this tragedy grows dimmer in Canadian memory with each passing year. Words written by my late mother, Leila K. Nair, and published by The Vancouver Sun on the 10th anniversary of the bombing, remain as salient today as they did in 1995:

“A reward of $1 million has given the Air India tragedy the kind of profile that 329 deaths failed to give it for 10 years,” she wrote, referring to a reward for information leading to a conviction in the disaster, which was announced on June 1, 1995.

“Of the passengers on that flight, 280 were Canadians and 86 were children, most of them born to Canada. Hours after the crash, the prime minister of Canada, Brian Mulroney telephoned the prime minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi, to express his condolences. India had lost an insured airplane with a crew of 22. Later, the Canadian government did wise up to the irony of that phone call. The Canadian people never did. To this day, that national tragedy is an ‘ethnic’ infliction beyond the understanding or interest of mainstream Canada — a mainstream touched more spontaneously by the Oklahoma City atrocity in which an alien nation suffered a parallel but lesser disaster for similar reasons.

“When distraught relatives arrived in County Cork the day after the disaster, Irish authorities assigned a police officer and a counsellor to each one of them. The pair met them at the airport and remained attached to them through their entire stay. That compassionate gesture of the Irish is as green today in the memory of the bereaved as is the sense of betrayal and helplessness they felt at the conspicuous absence of Canadian personnel at that time. The truth was that after the initial Teflon reaction a Canadian contingent had been there in full force. But they had held back as they had not wanted to ‘intrude.’ Apparently the divide between Canadian and Canadian is wider than that between the Irish and grief. As it happened, after due process, a relief fund was set up in Canada which entitled every family to $100 and visits from a social worker to help them fill out forms. O Canada!

“As if to underwrite the pain, Canada Day comes a week after this anniversary. There is no mistaking the whiff of patronage that characterizes the celebrations in citizenship courts, the ostensible fraternizing with cookies and speeches. Voices rise to sing ‘We stand on guard for thee.’ It is only after the euphoria has passed that certain minority groups realize they may not, in the foreseeable future, be a part of ‘thee’

“Yet, few on that marked Air India flight had been accepted into Canada on sufferance. Almost all of them belonged to the wave of professionals who had come in the 1960s and ’70s to step into unfilled positions … This particular category of Canadians owe their education to the taxpayer in India. They owe their nurturing to self-sacrificing parents in India. Their productive years have been almost entirely in Canada. … Nor do they take their naturalization lightly.”

My mother conveyed her own dilemma with citizenship: “I had no problem with proclaiming allegiance to the country in which I lived. My problem was giving up the heritage into which I was born. Citizenship also involved obeisance to Her Majesty the Queen. I thought of my great grandfather and cringed. He had taught himself English just so that when the time came he could tell the British where they got off in a language they could understand.”

But an excursion to the Groesbeek Canadian War Cemetery cemented her loyalty to Canada: “I couldn’t live in this country and not be a citizen,” she wrote. “Peace came the next day, when I went to work. I worked a little harder; a little longer. I took on something I did not really have to do. That has been my continuing oath of allegiance to Canada.”

Many Indian immigrants’ experiences today bear little resemblance to that of their predecessors. In the 1960s and ’70s, leaving India meant leaving behind every element of familiarity, including their families, and starting anew in isolation. Calling home was by no means assured; going home was something to be painstakingly saved for and cherished when viable.

That longing for home was cannily exploited by the bombers. By June 23, school terms were ending and a trip to India with children in tow beckoned.

It is perhaps the greatest of ironies that June 23 is also officially designated as the start of the summer recess for Parliamentarians. Said another way, it is the day when they too may return home and be with loved ones.

Parliamentary procedures being what they are, MPs may collectively choose to depart before June 23. Regardless of the date, before they leave, as they anticipate enjoying the summer with their families, they ought to bear in mind that the Canadian families aboard Air India Flight 182 on June 23, 1985, sought that same comfort. A moment of silence to remember them would be more than appropriate and ought to be an annual tradition in Parliament.

Meera Nair holds a doctorate in communication. She grew up in the Metro Vancouver area and now resides in Edmonton. Leila K. Nair (1931-2020) was a mathematics lecturer and emigrated from India to Canada in 1965.

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