Canadians can tell you what terrorist attack took place on September 11, 2001. But they will be hard pressed to tell you the terrorist attack of June 23, 1985. It’s like it never happened.
Here’s some hints. It was the worst terrorist attack in Canada’s history. It was the most expensive to investigate. Relative to our population, as many Canadians died on June 23 as did Americans on September 11.
It was the bombing of Air India flight 182.
On that ill-fated day, Air India flight 182 took off from Canada to England, destined for Mumbai (Bombay), India. It carried mostly Canadian passengers, 82 of them children. The total on board was 331. The flight ended violently in the early morning of June 23 off the coast of Ireland.
All seemed normal for those passengers who awoke after a long overnight flight. What they didn’t know was that a time bomb was ticking in a suitcase stored in the forward cargo hold. The suitcase had been loaded by a “Mr. Singh” in Vancouver who was suspiciously not aboard.
At 7:08 A.M. air traffic control at Shannon airport, Ireland, radioed Air India. “Air India 182, good morning. Squawk 2005 [activate transponder] and go ahead, please.” A crewman on Air India radioed “Air India 182 is . . .” Then silence. At 7:14 A.M., the traffic controller heard a loud, rushing, sound.
It was a fatal and tragic day for the passengers of Air India 182 and things weren’t going well for “Mr. Singh” either. According to one explanation, he didn’t mean kill all those people. You see, the timer for the bomb was set on the previous day when the suitcases were loaded in Vancouver. The setting of the timers assumed no flight delays – – but there were delays. If Air India had landed on time in England, the passengers would have left the plane and the bomb would have destroyed the plane as is sat on the tarmac.
This explanation is supported by a conversation that allegedly took place between thee Sikh militants in London, a few months after the bombing. The three were Ajaib Singh Bagri, a saw mill worker from Kamloops; Tara Singh Hayer, a publisher of a Vancouver newspaper; Tarsen Singh Purewal a British newspaper publisher.
Hayer recalled the conversation. “Bagri then said that if everything would have gone as planned, the plane would have blown up at Heathrow airport with no passengers on it. But, because the flight was a half hour or three quarters of an hour late, it blew up over the ocean,” Hayer told the RCMP.
Regrettably, two of the three who attended that meeting in Britain are no longer alive to recall the details of the conversation.
Calamity befell both publishers Hayer and Purewal after they renounced extremism and printed newspaper articles critical of Sikh militants. Both were gunned down. But Bagri is still alive and being tried in Vancouver with codefendant Ripudaman Singh Malik for his part in the Air India 182 bombing. Undoubtedly, the court will want to hear Bagri’s account of the conversation.
But regardless of whether there was a mistake in timing or not, it will be decades before Canadians recognize the terrorist attack for what it was – – a precursor of September 11, 2001.
Canadians at all levels were, and still are, in denial. The RCMP didn’t take the ample warnings from the government of India seriously. If they had worn leather jackets and rode Harleys, instead of colourful ethnic costumes with ceremonial swords , the Sikh extremists might have been taken seriously by the RCMP.
Canada’s intelligence agency, CSIS, destroyed valuable taped evidence that they had collected before the bombing, hoping that the event would just go away.
It took six months before Canadian Aviation Safety Board admitted that it was a bomb that brought down Air India 182.
The Canadian government was reluctant to even admit that Canadians died in the terrorist attack. Prime minister Mulroney gave condolences to the Indian prime minister, as if it was mostly Indians who died.
We learned nothing from the terrorist attack of June 23. The lesson should have been that terrorism can’t be isolated in a globalized society. If we had learned that lesson, perhaps the tragedy of September 11 could have been foreseen and possibly avoided.