Canada

Racism issue resurfaces as testimony ends at Air India inquiry

The question of whether racism played a role in how officials dealt with the 1985 Air India bombing resurfaced Thursday as testimony wrapped up at an inquiry.

The question of whether racism played a role in how officials dealt with the 1985 Air India bombing resurfaced Thursday as testimony wrapped up at an inquiry.

At issue was a report commissioned by families of the 329 people killed when Flight 182 en route from Canada to India exploded off the west coast of Ireland on June 23, 1985.

Toronto sociologist Sherene Razack argues in her report that a racial bias, perhaps unconscious, affected the government's response to the bombing, which claimed the lives of 329 people, 280 of them Canadian.

In her testimony Thursday, she didn't level charges of overt racism at individual bureaucrats, politicians or officers and even acknowledged that "There is evidence that some Canadian officials acted heroically."

But she said an overall structure tainted by systemic racism led people to ignore advance warnings of the attack and hampered the initial criminal probe.

Federal lawyer Barney Brucker bristled at the suggestion, saying Razack based the report on selective documents given to her by lawyers of the victims' families.

"You really don't know what happened in this case, Professor, other than what's been fed to you in these documents," Brucker asserted during cross-examination.

Razack, who teaches at the University of Toronto's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, retorted that his remark was a "particularly contemptuous way of putting it."

The lawyer went on to note that much of the testimony heard at the inquiry indicates police and security officials did the best they could to head off the bombing.

He also pointed out that former Ontario premier Bob Rae, who oversaw the government's fact-finding mission that led to the inquiry, testified that he found no evidence of racism among key decision-makers.

Razack acknowledged people "people worked very hard" and "felt very strongly that they had not discriminated."

But she said with systemic racism, compassionate people can be trapped in social or bureaucratic structures that produce discriminatory results.

She said Ottawa was slow to recognize the enormity of the tragedy and took more than two decades to call a public inquiry.

The downing of the flight was widely blamed on Sikh militants. Only one person — Inderjit Singh Reyat — was ever convicted in the plot.

Led by former Supreme Court judge John Major, the hearings began more than 1½ years ago and are scheduled to wrap up Friday.

Lawyers for the victims' families are expected to make their closing arguments and offer recommendations for reforming policies.

With files from the Canadian Press