Is Canada truly indifferent to the Air India terrorist attack of 1985?

There are a few things that hold a place of note in my memory whenever I think back to the start of my career in intelligence in 1983. As a wet-behind-the-ears multilingual analyst fresh out of university I had joined CSE – Canada’s SIGINT agency – with little to no clue as to what intelligence was or what my role was to be.  In a perfect world I would have eased into my new career but, alas, the world is never perfect.  Events soon thrust me into the fire, so to speak.

Scarcely a month after my start the Soviets shot down a Korean airliner, killing 269 passengers and crew, claiming it was a US spy plane.  Not even two months after that the US invaded the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada to forestall a coup and alleged Cuban influence (ergo Soviet influence) in the US’ backyard.  We were called upon to provide intelligence assistance to the Canadian government in both instances.

By the middle of 1985 I was a ‘seasoned’ intelligence analyst- if two years’ experience counts as ‘seasoned’.  We had been following the rise in Sikh terrorism in India in the wake of the Indian army’s Operation BlueStar to remove Sikh militants from the Golden Temple in Punjab.  The siege led to 83 deaths, 249 injured and almost 1600 arrests.  Retribution by Sikh extremists ensued immediately.  Riots were engaged and Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated four months later.

Canada is home to a sizeable Sikh community, especially in the Greater Vancouver Area, and violence began here as well.  The ultimate act of terrorism was the placing of bombs on two Air India flights, one that exploded in Tokyo, killing a baggage handler at Narita airport and a second, much more devastating, that brought down an aircraft off the coast of Ireland on June 23, 1985 killing 329 people, an act that was the single greatest terrorist attack in history prior to 9/11.

You can imagine what this meant for intelligence analysts in Canada.  Complicating matters was the fact that CSIS was less than a year old in 1985, having been created out of the old RCMP Security Service, and the new organisation was still finding its way in the transition from a police agency to a civilian one.  Nevertheless many criticised CSIS and others for not stopping the attack from happening and for incompetence.  In other words they would say that we blew it and as a result many lost their lives.  Not surprisingly the truth is somewhat more complicated.  As a side note, we at CSE had a limited role in this matter since the organisation does not collect intelligence in Canada or on Canadians.

What I want to turn to is the allegation by some that the Air India  is Canada’s ‘forgotten’ terrorist attack.  McMaster University’s Chandrima Chakraborty makes that claim in an article in The Conversation.  She states that no one in Canada seems to care – Prime Minister Trudeau’s recent ‘meeting’ with a Sikh extremist in India could certainly give people that impression.

There is no question that things were missed back in 1985.  Intelligence was either not picked up or was not appreciated for what it meant.  I know that it means little to the families of the victims but this happens on occasion.  In truth we get things right more than we get things wrong but we are held to a very high stadard and we are only as good as our last failure in the public’s mind.  I can assure everyone that intelligence organisation employees take their jobs very seriously and do their utmost to stop bad things from happening (I am speaking from a Canadian perspective of course as this is what I am most familiar with).  We cannot, however, be 100% successful.

So what about Canadians in general?  What do they think of the Air India bombing?  Are they as dismissive as Professor Chakraborty seems to think?  I have no idea as I have not polled Canadians.  It is likely accurate that since the attack did not occur on Canadian soil but rather off a far away coast it has a slightly lower resonance for most.  Compare that attack with the one on October 22, 2014 on Parliament Hill and at the National Cenotaph where one man was killed.  The centrality of striking the centre of Canadian democracy certainly shocked Canadians: after all we are little used – thankfully! – to terrorist acts on our soil.

What about the fact that the victims were largely ‘Indo-Canadians’?  Is there an underlying racism here?  Professor Chakraborty certainly thinks so although I see little data in her work to support that contention.  Don’t get me wrong, we do have racists in Canada but I find it hard to believe that Canadians dismiss the slaughter of more than 300 people just because they are ‘outsiders’ (her word, not mine).  Didn’t we just take in thousands of Syrian refugees that would qualify equally as ‘outsiders’?

I feel that a more central reason for the ‘indifference’ (again, her word not mine) is tied to when the event occurred (we were not as spellbound by terrorism in the 1980s) and its link to an internal Indian conflict, a conflict that meant little to Canadians.  Nothing more and nothing less.

The danger today is that Sikh extremism has not disappeared.  It could rear its ugly head again in Canada as a younger generation grows increasingly frustrated with a lack of progress on Sikh issues, especially under a heavily nationalist Hindu government in India under President Modi.  We must remain vigilant to this threat.  And the Prime Minister really needs to get a handle on who he finds himself photographed with.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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