Canada's response to Iran crash a '180-degree shift' from Air India disaster, experts say
Catastrophic crash 35 years ago that killed 280 Canadians was treated as a 'foreign tragedy'
Canada's response to the Ukrainian air crash tragedy is very different from the way Canadians reacted to the Air India disaster 35 years ago, experts say.
News of Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752's destruction and the deaths of all 176 people on board — including 57 Canadians, a number revised downward from 63 on Friday — touched off a nationwide period of public mourning.
On Parliament Hill, provincial legislatures and municipal sites across the country, the Canadian flag was lowered to half-mast. Vigils and memorials are being planned in communities from coast to coast.
That collective outpouring of grief is quite unlike the public's reaction to the Air India disaster 35 years ago, when Flight 182, carrying 329 people — most of them Canadian citizens or permanent residents — was brought down by a bomb attack on June 23, 1985.
Chandrima Chakraborty, a cultural studies professor at McMaster University, said the Air India crash was dismissed as a "foreign tragedy" and met with widespread indifference by the Canadian public. Despite the scale of the tragedy — 82 children were killed — the event did not resonate as deeply with Canadians as PS752's crash in Iran seems to be now, she said.
"It was an Air India plane, (thought to be) primarily Indians, so it must be an Indian tragedy," she said. "That hasn't happened this time."
Chakraborty said this week's crash is being framed as a Canadian tragedy in the media and by the federal government, and Canadians themselves are mourning the victims as fellow citizens.
Brian Mulroney, prime minister at the time of the Air India crash, was criticized for offering condolences to the Indian government rather than to the Canadian families of victims after the disaster.
"Once the government has that kind of gut response, it pushed the bombing to the margins of Canadian public consciousness. It did not result in the outpouring of grief or public mourning that we're seeing now," Chakraborty said.
"Canada's lack of acknowledgement of the Air India loss as Canadian, I think, exacerbated the family's grief of losing family members."
Public understanding 'hazy'
Today, scholarly research on the Air India tragedy remains relatively scarce and public understanding of the event is "hazy" in the minds of most Canadians, she said.
The Air India disaster led to a public inquiry and lengthy criminal trials. In 2010, a quarter century after the disaster, then-prime minister Stephen Harper delivered a formal apology to the families of the victims for Canada's failure to prevent the tragedy and for mistreating the families in the aftermath.
"Your pain is our pain. As you grieve, so we grieve. And, as the years have deepened your grief, so has the understanding of our country grown," he said on June 23, 2010.
"Canadians who sadly did not at first accept that this outrage was made in Canada accept it now. Let me just speak directly to this perception, for it is wrong and it must be laid to rest. This was not an act of foreign violence. This atrocity was conceived in Canada, executed in Canada, by Canadian citizens, and its victims were themselves mostly citizens of Canada."
John Major, a former Supreme Court justice who presided over the Air India public inquiry, said the circumstances of that disaster are vastly different from those of the PS752 crash. The recent event, he said, drew immediate global attention due to the increasing volatility of the security climate in the Middle East and what he called the "world fright" about what might happen next in the U.S-Iran conflict.
The news cycle and the media landscape also have changed in the decades since Air India, he said.
"It became an international story immediately because of the relationships in the Middle East, which had absolutely nothing to do with Air India," he said. "I don't know you can draw much of a parallel."
Major said there's "no doubt" the Air India victims were treated differently because they were considered Indian, or "late-come Canadians," but he said Canada's mishandling of the disaster had more to do with government authorities passing the buck.
"Their first reaction was that it's India's problem, not ours," he said.
Sociologist Sherene Razack, who provided expert testimony during the Air India inquiry on whether racism played a role in the government's response to the bombing, said it was a "positive moment" to hear the federal government claim those who died in this week's crash as Canada's own.
"Few in the media even did the usual hyphenation and simply said Canadians died in the crash," said Razack, now a professor at UCLA. "This was a remarkable difference from the response to Air India and I can only hope that it signals some progress on the racism front ...
"Is it possible that the nation has begun to change? I can only hope so."
Andrew Griffith, a former senior immigration official who now researches diversity and multiculturalism, said he regards Canada's current response as an "encouraging reminder" of how Canadians have evolved in terms of how they see, accept and embrace fellow citizens who are immigrants or members of visible minorities.
"What really struck me, as these horrific stories came out, was the reference is 'Canadian.' It wasn't even Iranian-Canadian. It was simply these are Canadians, this is a Canadian issue and tragedy," he said.
"I don't think any of that really happened in the early years following Air India."
Griffith suggested one possible reason for the change is the fact that Canada is now far more diverse than it was at the time of Air India, when visible minorities represented a smaller, newer share of the population.
"Now it is part of the Canadian reality," he said. "That's a sea-change, in my view."
After Air India, the Indo-Canadian community was bitterly resentful of the authorities they believed failed to take the investigation seriously.
Canadians' reaction to the Ukrainian airline crash represents a "180-degree shift," Griffith said.
"It means that Iranian-Canadians will feel more accepted, more welcome, more integrated, more part of society, whereas with Indo-Canadians it dragged on and on," he said.
For the family members of Air India victims, the pain remains fresh.
Eisha Marjara, who lost her mother and sister in the bombing, said she sees a difference in the response to the two disasters.
"The response for the Air India tragedy was disappointing and heartbreaking," she said. "We were left in the dark for a long time.
"So seeing the way the prime minister and the media [have] swiftly and transparently handled the crash and prioritized the well being of the families of the victims is very encouraging."