Relative of Air India bombing victim says she felt excluded

The relative of a passenger who died in the Air India bombing told the inquiry that public and media concentration on Indo-Canadian victims left her feeling excluded.

For Monique Castonguay,the ordealstarted with a phone call on a Sunday morning in 1985. It was her brother-in-law, urgently asking to speak to her husband Maurice.

It wasn't until Maurice got off the phone that she found out what was so urgent— the radio was reporting that the Air India plane carrying Maurice's sister Rachelle had gone down off the coast of Ireland.

"A sense of panic filled us," Castonguay recalled Tuesday at a public inquiry into the worst terrorist attack in Canadian history.

"No survivors, the radio was saying… We imagined the free fall, we shared her fear, and the terror of her final moments."

Eighty per cent of the 329 people who perished on Air India Flight 182 were Canadian citizens, the vast majority of them people of Indian origin or descent. Rachelle Castonguay, a 32-year-old Franco-Ontarian social scientist who did population studies for the federal government, was one of the few passengers who had no personal ties to south Asia.

It fell to her sister-in-law Monique, speaking on behalf of the family, to describe the trauma they endured.

For years afterward, she told the inquiry headed by Justice John Major, friends, co-workers and acquaintances— not to mention the journalists she spoke to— expressed surprise when they heard the story.

"I'm sorry, I didn't know there were white people on board," Castonguay quoted one person as telling her— an example, she said, of the racial stereotyping that afflicted many non-Asian Canadians in the wake of the bombing.

Like others, the Castonguay family had trouble getting information from the federal government and staying abreast of the subsequent police investigation. In their case, however, there was a special problem.

Most of the victims were English-speaking, and it was difficult to get people— even the bureaucrats of an officially bilingual government— to speak or write to them in French.

It was the same whenever memorial services were held over the ensuing years, or when the families of victims gathered to exchange views and voice their concerns to the government.

Victim's family regularly cut from TV coverage

Inmedia coverage, Castonguay noted that the television clips always seemed to edit her out of the story, perhaps on the assumption that she must be part of the official federal delegation, not the relative of someone who died.

"Every time this kind of exclusion occurred, it was as if they were taking away our right to include Rachelle among the Air India victims, and to cry over her loss."

It wasn't until last year that she finally vented her feelings on the subject to Bob Rae, the former Ontario premier commissioned by the Liberal government of Paul Martin to meet with the families of victims and consider their demand for a public inquiry.

"It was the first time I dared to speak about this," Castonguay said Tuesday. "The meeting was held entirely in French."

Rae, now a candidate for the federal Liberal leadership, is expected to appear at the inquiry.

In his report to the former Martin government, he laid out a number of options, including the possibility of an inquiry along the lines of the present one. The Liberals had not announced a decision before they were driven from office, leaving Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper to pick up the issue and appoint Major after the Tories took power.

The Air India attack has long been blamed on a small group of Sikh separatists, based in British Columbia but campaigning for a homeland in the Punjab region of northern India.

Only one man has been convicted in a court of law, on a charge of manslaughter for his part in building the bomb that brought down Flight 182. Another suspect was shot dead in India in 1992, while two more were acquitted last year in a trial in Vancouver.

Major has no power to revisit past court cases or to hold anyone criminally responsible. The inquiry is concentrating on broader issues of anti-terrorist policy still relevant in the post-9-11 world.

Nevertheless, most of the families of the victims consider it their last best hope for closure and justice.

"We know very well that nothing and nobody can bring Rachelle back to life," said Castonguay. "She is at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean," among those whose bodies were never recovered.

"But we need changes to be made to our laws and regulations to avoid a similar disaster happening again."