Excusing the inexcusable

On the 25th anniversary of the Air India bombing, Terry Milewski looks at why the Canadian government will say, 'sorry,' and how the findings of the Major Commission led to that apology.

After a quarter-century, Canada says sorry for botching the Air India investigation

Relatives of Air India victim Anjani Kumar Sinha, from left, Geetika, Aarushi and Nivedita Srivastava, react to a June 23 service at a memorial in Ahakista, Ireland, to mark the 25th anniversary of the crash. A minute's silence was broken by chanting from the families at 8:13 a.m. — the moment a bomb exploded in a suitcase on Air India Flight 182, killing all 329 passengers and crew on board. ((Julien Behal/Associated Press))

It took 83 years for Canada to apologize for the infamous head tax imposed upon Chinese immigrants between 1885 and 1923.

It took 46 years for the government, under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, to apologize for the internment of Japanese-Canadians in World War II.

The British government took 38 years to apologize for Bloody Sunday. Prime Minister David Cameron said the British army's killing of innocent Irish civilians was "wrong" — although many of their relatives didn't live long enough to hear it.

But perhaps we are getting better at this. Now, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is offering an apology for the Air India bombing — after a mere 25 years. For the families gathering at memorial services in Ahakista, Ireland, in Vancouver and in Toronto, these are the words that may help them through the day: a Canadian prime minister finally saying, "We are sorry."

Of course, there's a crucial difference: The head tax, the internment and the Bloody Sunday massacre were all state-sponsored abominations. But the Canadian government didn't bomb Air India. The bombers were Canadian, to be sure, and the death toll was far higher than Bloody Sunday — 331 to 14. But the bombers weren't sent by the Canadian government.

So what is Harper apologizing for?

The answers lie deep in the 3,200 painful pages of Air India inquiry commissioner John C. Major's "damning indictment," as Harper calls it, of Canada's astonishingly feeble attempts to fight back against the bombers and to protect its citizens.

'Inappropriate?' No: 'inexcusable'

Consider, first, the uncommonly harsh language of the report. Less than a month has passed since the Oliphant inquiry on Mulroney's dealing with Karlheinz Schreiber. Mulroney's conduct in pocketing envelopes stuffed with thousand-dollar bills was "inappropriate," Justice Jeffrey Oliphant said delicately.

Retired Supreme Court of Canada Justice John C. Major waits in Ottawa on June 21, 2006, for the start of his inquiry into the Air India bombings. Air India Flight 182 exploded off the coast of Ireland on June 23, 1985, claiming the lives of 329 people. Another bomb in luggage destined for another Air India flight killed two baggage handlers at Tokyo's Narita airport the same day. ((Chris Wattie/Reuters))

Major, it seems, is a blunter man. In his report, he tears into the government and its "wholly deficient" agencies. The failure to prevent the bombing was "inexcusable." CSIS was "ineffective." There was a "lax security culture" at airports. The RCMP "failed" to protect threatened witnesses.

Successive governments treated the victims' families "like adversaries, as if they had somehow brought this calamity on themselves." Politicians' failure to plug security holes — even today — was also "inexcusable."

These comments were bound to make headlines — but did the evidence really support them? Or was Major exaggerating the lapses of hard-pressed, under-funded agencies, which, after all, had tried desperately to solve the case?

Sadly, to read past those headlines is to see that, on the contrary, he was not too harsh — but he might have been too kind.

Open Major's epic at random and what do we find? Take just three examples — one about the RCMP, one about CSIS and one about the government as a whole.

The 333rd victim: Tara Singh Hayer

One of the most depressing tales in Major's report concerns the murder of a crusading moderate Sikh who knew the militants well and denounced them publicly: Surrey newspaper publisher Tara Singh Hayer.

Hayer's 1995 statement to the RCMP  is one of the most chilling documents in the whole Air India file. He described a visit to his friend, fellow publisher Tarsem Singh Purewal, in London, England, soon after the bombing. Purewal had a visitor — Ajaib Singh Bagri of Kamloops, B.C. — and Hayer, sitting nearby behind a room divider, listened as Bagri talked to Purewal:

Extract from a statement made by Tara Singh Hayer to RCMP on Oct. 15, 1995. ((CBC))

By the time he made that statement, Hayer had long since been identified as a threat to the conspirators. In 1987 and 1988, he repeatedly identified Bagri and Parmar as likely suspects in his Punjabi-language Indo-Canadian Times and even alluded to the alleged confession in London.

In the summer of 1988, Hayer was shot and paralyzed from the waist down. In 1995, Hayer's friend, Purewal, was shot to death on his doorstep in Southall, outside London. He was the 332nd victim of the bombing.

Publisher Tara Singh Hayer, who denounced the Air India bombers in his newspaper and told the RCMP he overheard one of them confess, was shot once and paralyzed from the waist down in 1988, then shot fatally in 1998. ((Air India Inquiry/Canadian Press) )

Hayer was next. After Purewal's murder, Hayer, now in a wheelchair, offered the RCMP his testimony and refused his family's pleas to keep his silence. The RCMP placed him under protection and installed surveillance cameras at his house. But the cameras did not function and nobody bothered to repair them — or even to tell Hayer's family they were useless. Sure enough, the cameras saw nothing when Hayer was shot a second time, this time fatally, in 1998. So died the 333rd victim.

Major goes through this history with rising impatience. Was this really the best the RCMP could do for a crucial witness in the biggest criminal case in Canadian history?

Major's answer was no.

"Tragically, the murder of Tara Singh Hayer, while he was supposedly under the watch of the RCMP, not only snuffed out the life of a courageous opponent of terrorism, but permanently foreclosed the possibility of his assistance in bringing the perpetrators of the bombing of Flight 182 to justice," he concludes.

Tale of the tapes: 'Systematic destruction'

But Hayer's killing was just one of many tragedies that dogged the case. And how else to describe the trashing of the wiretaps but as a tragedy?

Major tackles this bizarre chapter in tones of disbelief. CSIS itself had applied to wiretap Talwinder Singh Parmar, the leader of the bomb plot, precisely because it considered him a dangerous terrorist, already wanted for murder in India. And Parmar had told his followers that "Indian planes will fall from the sky."

One of the CSIS spies who had followed Parmar to a test bombing, Raymond Kobzey, said, "as soon as I heard the plane went down, I thought that Parmar did it." 

So how to explain that CSIS promptly erased its tapes of Parmar's phone calls? Major's finding is that there is simply no excuse or explanation. He quotes former B.C. prosecutor Jim Jardine, who struggled to convict Parmar's bomb-maker, Inderjit Reyat, despite the loss of the tapes: "Inconceivable, incomprehensible, indefensible, incompetence."

Major briskly dismisses the defence advanced by CSIS and by successive governments — that there was nothing of value on the tapes and that erasing them was standard policy. Actually, he finds, there was, indeed, crucial evidence on the tapes and destroying them violated CSIS policy.

The translator's notes, which survived, appear to reveal Parmar plotting the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and ordering the booking of tickets for the Air India bombing.

A door from Air India Flight 182 floats in the Atlantic Ocean near Cork, Ireland, on June 25, 1985. A bomb exploded on the flight, which originated in Canada, as it flew over the Irish coast on June 23, 1985. ((Reuters/pool))

"Once the bombing had occurred, there was no excuse for the continued systematic destruction of the tape recordings," Major concluded. "Parmar was immediately suspected.… The failure to put a stop to the destruction of the tapes represented a failure on the part of the service to perform its function in the public interest. It was a triumph of blind adherence to a practice that could not then and cannot now be justified.

"Certainly, the destruction of the tapes had a negative impact on the Malik and Bagri trial.… The destruction of the tapes was a most serious error [which] … minimized any possible advantage for the prosecution."

Is it any wonder, then, that we have heard no howls of protest that Major's findings were too harsh? A witness murdered; evidence tossed out with the trash; how could it be any worse?

But we have not yet dealt with the politicians, and the long history of denial and obfuscation by successive governments, both Conservative and Liberal.

Bomb? What bomb?

This history is something that has aggravated the families' grief since the beginning, when the government sought to limit its liability by arguing that there was no proof that a bomb had slipped past Canadian security. It's hard to believe now, but Major's report confirms that, indeed, saving its own face — and its own cash — was more important to the federal government than helping the families win compensation.

Before an Indian inquiry in 1986 called the Kirpal Commission, as Major puts it, "the government's stance — denying that there was proof that Air India Flight 182 was brought down by a bomb — made the families' position in the civil litigation particularly difficult."

He goes on to explain that the government was under no illusion that its position was actually true.

"The documents and testimony presented in this inquiry show that the RCMP viewed the Air India tragedy as a bombing from the outset."

There's no nice way to put this: Canada's government knew it was a bomb, but said otherwise to protect its own institutional interests against those of the victims' families.

Warning? What warning?

Major goes on to condemn the official claims — which continued at his inquiry — that there really was no warning of an attack on Air India Flight 182. He says the government even tried to discredit those who testified that there was, such as former Ontario lieutenant-governor James Bartleman. In 1985, Bartleman was a senior security official at Foreign Affairs.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper meets with members of the Air India Victims Families Association in his office in Ottawa on June 17. ((Chris Wattie/Reuters))

But the admit-nothing attitude of the government persisted for 25 years, through the Mulroney government, on to the Chrétien government and even to the Harper government, whose lawyers urged Major to conclude that everything was fine:

"This resulted in final submissions on behalf of the attorney general of Canada which were at times self-contradictory, and which ended up advocating maintenance of the status quo.… The government maintained that it had met all of its security obligations in relation to Air India prior to the bombing, and that the security measures for which its agencies were responsible were adequate.… It is regrettable that, even after more than 20 years have elapsed, the government was still not willing to admit these clear deficiencies nor to apologize for them to the families."

"We are sorry"

Really, what option does the government have in the face of this but to apologize, at last? Readers may dip into the report and find different and equally startling examples of bungling, denial and plain confusion. The government has not made any commitments, even now, to implementing Major's recommendations.

Relatives of victims of the Air India Flight 182 bombing gather for a minute's silence at a memorial service in Ahakista, Ireland, on June 23, 2005. The service marked the 20th anniversary of the bombing. ((Mike Finn-Kelcey/Reuters))

But one thing has changed. In 2005, then Prime Minister Paul Martin went to the 20th Air India memorial service in Ireland and said some, but not all, of what the families wanted to hear: that "this was a Canadian tragedy" — not someone else's problem.

Only now, though, is a prime minister prepared to look the families in the eye and say the words that have been missing for 25 years: "We are sorry."

It's not everything Major wanted. But it's a start.