You won't want to read this

Terry Milewski reports on what's expected in the Air India Commission report, and the background that led up to the commission.

The ugly story of the Air India bombing inches towards publication

Retired Supreme Court justice John C. Major, commissioner of the Air India inquiry. (Canadian Press)

Nobody will blame you if you want to look away when John C. Major's epic report on the Air India bombing arrives — 25 years late! — on June 17.

Five volumes with 3,200 pages! Four extra volumes of academic reports for an extra 1,200 pages!

But, be warned. Before you change the channel, you may experience a sneaking feeling that this long, frightening story  has much more relevance to our lives, our laws and our politics than we ever knew. In fact, the passage of time and the lack of lessons learned may have sharpened that relevance, rather than blunted it.

The scale of it reflects Major's huge mandate and the delay is not his fault. He only got the job four years ago and his inquiry is not just about the 1985 bombing. He has been digging into the scary, misunderstood worlds of airline security and terrorist financing, into turf wars between spies and police, and into the laws of evidence, which have so often entangled criminal trials.

Wreckage of Air India flight 182 lying on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, more than 2,000 metres below the surface. (Associated Press)

And if his report is gigantic, well, so it should be.

Canada's worst mass murder

It was the worst mass murder in Canadian history — 331 innocent civilians were slaughtered in one morning by two bombs made in British Columbia by Sikh extremists fighting India for an independent state. The group was led by an immigrant preacher in B.C. named Talwinder Singh Parmar, a Canadian citizen wanted for the murder of two policemen in India. Canada had refused to extradite him.

Parmar eventually returned on his own to India, where he was killed by police in 1992. He is revered by his Canadian admirers, even today, as a martyr of the Sikh nation.

A photo of Talwinder Singh Parmar, founder of the Babbar Khalsa terrorist group, on a 2007 Vaisakhi parade float in Surrey, B.C. (CBC)

A mass murderer glorified as a martyr? Yes. His friends in Toronto and Vancouver have his picture on their walls. We've even seen those pictures, garlanded with tinsel, carried through the streets of Surrey, B.C., in the annual Vaisakhi parade while politicians from all parties smiled and waved.

This "martyr" neither knew nor cared who his victims were.

It was meant to kill many more

This was the plan: a simultaneous explosion of two Air India planes on opposite sides of the globe — and we should have seen it coming. Parmar told his followers in 1984 that "Indian planes will fall from the sky." That same year, his number 2, Ajaib Singh Bagri of Kamloops, B.C., cut the air with his hand as he made this pledge to the founding convention of the World Sikh Organization: "Until we kill 50,000 Hindus, we will not rest!"

A packed crowd took up the chant: "Hindu dogs! Death to them!"

Talwinder Singh Parmar, right, with Babbar Khalsa co-founder Ajaib Singh Bagri, photographed by CSIS outside Parmar's house in Burnaby, B.C., in July 1985. (CSIS)

In practice, though, Parmar didn't discriminate among his victims. Anyone on the two Air India planes would do. He continued to plot his attack even as CSIS watched his house, photographed his visitors and wiretapped his phone.

In the end, only one of his homemade bombs went off on time. Two Japanese baggage handlers died at Narita Airport in Tokyo as they transferred bags arriving from Toronto to a waiting Air India flight bound for Bangkok. Perhaps they handled the bag with the bomb too roughly; we'll never know.

The bomb on Air India Flight 182 ticks down

The other bomb — a bundle of dynamite wired to a timer — ticked on for another hour. It had  made the trip from Vancouver to Toronto and now lay in the belly of Flight 182 as it prepared to descend to London's Heathrow airport.

Eighty-two vacationing children were among the 329 passengers and crew —  most of them Canadians. All died a hideous death at 31,000 feet when the jumbo jet blew asunder at dawn over the southern Irish coast. There were Sikhs, Hindus, Christians and Muslims — all equally collateral to the bombers' cause.

Only 131 bodies were ever recovered. By chance, one of the first to be found was a Sikh with a long beard — one of thousands of Sikhs who died at the hands of the separatist movement. Many of those were Sikh policemen who stood in the way of the militants. That may be why, today, separatism is discredited and dormant in the Sikh homeland of Punjab.

But not in Canada. This year, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh — himself a Sikh — became the latest in a string of Indian leaders who have complained, for 30 years, that separatist militants find a safe haven in Canada.

'Are only we to blame, who put them on the flight?'

For 20 years, though, Canada did not seem much interested in the issue, or in the demands by the victims' relatives for a judicial inquiry. In March 2005, they renewed their demand after a court in Vancouver acquitted two men at the Air India criminal trial.

Dr. Padmini Turlapati at the 20th Air India memorial in Ahakista, Ireland, on June 23, 2005. She lost both her sons in the bombing. (CBC)

Then, grieving for her two lost sons at the 20th annual memorial in Ireland, Padmini Turlapati, an Ontario pediatrician, put the question bluntly to an audience including then-prime minister Paul Martin and then-Opposition leader Stephen Harper: "Are only we to blame, who put them on the flight?"

Turlapati's question hung in the air until 2006 when Harper, now prime minister, handed the colossal task of an inquiry to Major.

Major immediately hit the road with a battered leather briefcase for which, he proudly noted, he only paid $19. But how could it handle the load as he travelled the country, meeting the families and encountering a mountain of baffling questions?

How on earth had the plot succeeded when the police and CSIS were watching and wiretapping? Why were their tapes of Parmar's conversations mysteriously erased after the bombing, when CSIS knew that Parmar was the main suspect? Why were the warnings of an attack ignored? 

Later, as he soldiered on through 200 witnesses and 17,000 classified documents, Major seemed mindful of the families' sense that they'd been cheated twice — first, by Canada's failure to prevent the bombing and, second, by its failure to give them justice or even answers.

The families' inquiry

Perviz Madon, who lost her husband, Sam, got a hint of this when she testified at the inquiry and thanked Major for listening to her. But he demurred.

Perviz Madon places her hand on a memorial to her husband, Sam, and other Air India victims at Stanley Park in Vancouver, in June 2007. (Canadian Press)

"Remember," he reminded her, "that you are here as of right. You are entitled to be here."

The message went out: this was her inquiry. And she seized the moment with a stinging indictment of Canada's political class for pandering to extremists in the Sikh community.

"I'm sorry," said Madon. "I know it's about your votes. But that's dirty business. You don't want to be associated with a group that is linked to terrorism. You don't want those kind of votes!"

Perhaps. But, after all the testimony, what can we expect in Major's findings?

Look out for volume 2

Major promises five weighty volumes which he will summarize in volume one and in a public statement on June 17 in Ottawa. Judging by his preliminary report  on the victims' stories, it will be powerfully written and will provide the quotes and headlines that will define the report before anyone has a chance to read it.

But it's volume two that will be pounced upon by the families: a forensic analysis of their two fundamental complaints.

First, Major will tackle the failure to stop the plotters before the bombing. How could the authorities watch Parmar night and day, and not step in? How could an unaccompanied bag, checked in at Vancouver by a man who paid cash and never took his seat, have been loaded onto his connecting Air India flight in Toronto? The flight was so obviously threatened that the RCMP parked cars around the plane while the orphaned bag rolled up the conveyor belt and into the hold.

An engine from Flight 182 seen by a submarine on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean. (RCMP)

Then, in the second half of volume two, Major will tackle the "post-bombing phase" — the meandering investigation which failed to bring the bombers to justice. Was it incompetence? Bad luck? Death threats against witnesses? A refusal by CSIS to co-operate with the RCMP?

All of these are in play. After all, a CSIS officer named Ray Kobzey, who'd been watching Parmar, exclaimed at the moment he learned of the bombing, "Parmar did it!" If they knew so much, why didn't they do something?

CSIS agents even followed Parmar and his bomb maker, Inderjit Singh Reyat, to a test blast in the woods on Vancouver Island, three weeks before the real thing. But, to this day, Reyat remains the only man ever convicted in the Air India bombing. (He is now charged with perjuring himself at the trial of the two men acquitted in 2005.)

Lawyers, watch out for volume 3

Volume three will be the one pounced upon by lawyers: a venture into the tangled thickets of the trial process. How can prosecutors use secret intelligence as evidence at a public trial? How do they protect secret sources but reveal them to the defence?

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

And how can they protect witnesses who know that, if they talk, they will die?

These are not theoretical questions. Every day, B.C. MLA Dave Hayer lives with the knowledge that no one has been convicted for the murder of his father, Tara Singh Hayer, in 1998. The elder Hayer was a police witness in Air India but was gunned down before he could testify.

His son said this week, "It is clear he was murdered to ensure his silence. The victims' rights to justice have not yet been fulfilled."

'A terrorist attack upon Canadians'

Major's report cannot really redress this. He is not re-trying the criminal case. But his final two volumes are aimed at preventing a similar attack.

In volume four he deals with aviation security, and in volume five, with the financing of terrorism. The Harper government sees a scolding coming and has recently tried to beef up the security of air cargo — a notorious weak spot. As for the financing of terrorism, how do you stop it? What if you give money to a charity and you don't have a clue that it may end up buying rockets for Hezbollah? It's another problem that no government has really solved.

The recovered right front door of Air India flight 182 stored in a Vancouver warehouse. the photo was released in 2004 for the Air India trial. (British Columbia Supreme Court/Canadian Press)

From the start, Major adopted the families' complaint that Canadians had never taken to heart the lessons of Air India — about the funding of terrorist groups, about airline security, about law enforcement and about the importation of foreign grievances. Rather, the nation seemed to have disowned the disaster as someone else's problem.

"Canada and Canadians in general," Major said in his preliminary report, "did not immediately recognize this as a terrorist attack upon Canadians."

Now, he plans to set that straight, even if it's very late in the day. Some of the bereaved have not lived to see this June 23, the 25th anniversary of the bombing.

But if his searching and sympathetic conduct of the inquiry is any guide, Major will say what the families want said: that it's past time to learn the lessons of this long ago horror.

They're also hoping he will remind us that the Air India massacre was a homemade Canadian catastrophe whose shadow still falls on us today.

Not forgotten. Not foreign. Ours.