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Vancouver resident and poet Renee Sarojini Saklikar rests her hand near the name of her aunt, Dr. Zebunnisa Jethwa, on the Air India memorial in Stanley Park.

Charlie Smith

The lesson from Air India Flight 182: Curiosity can save us

The Stanley Park memorial bears the names of those who lost their lives when bombs were placed on two planes in 1985.

Charlie Smith

By Renee Sarojini Saklikar

The 25th anniversary of the bombing of Air India Flight 182 is a milestone that must be placed within the context of the 2005 trial verdict, with its acquittal of the accused (Ripudaman Singh Malik and Ajaib Singh Bagri). These events left indelible marks on the Canadian psyche but are underestimated facets of our collective history.

That the anniversary coincides with the release of the final report of the commission of inquiry into the investigation of the bombing adds to the significance of each event. Former Supreme Court justice John Major worked within 20 terms of reference, one of which stipulated that he make no conclusion or recommendation regarding civil or criminal liability. The weight of all his findings must be set against two facts: 331 people lost their lives to acts of terror and to this day, only one man has ever been convicted.

If eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, then the final report of the inquiry—five volumes, over 3,000 pages—gets many things right: the “Canadian-ness” of the tragedy is embraced; the actions of our government before and after the bombing are collated, analyzed, and found wanting in the strongest possible terms. Contrary to recent assertions that the report shies away from an examination of racism, the Major inquiry cites many instances of a collective mindset intent on “looking away”, a hallmark of ethnocentrism.

As a family member of two people who perished in the bombing, the excoriation of Canada’s “culture of complacency” validates a long-held observation. Like most members of any affluent society, we Canadians often lack a capacity for educated curiosity—not the curiosity of the tourist who extracts and objectifies, but the empathic, historically informed curiosity of the seeker.

On June 23, 1985, when the Air India Boeing 747 exploded over the Atlantic off the southwest coast of Ireland, my aunt, Dr. Zebunnisa Jethwa, 43, and her husband, Dr. Umar Jethwa, 45, were murdered. After an investigation spanning decades, and littered with controversy, the two accused men were charged with eight counts of criminal wrongdoing in the proceeding that became known as the Air India trial.

On March 16, 2005, the acquittal of the accused on every count provoked an outcry not just from Air India family members but the Canadian and global public.

I won’t soon forget the specially designed, high-security courtroom known as Courtroom 20, in the basement of the Vancouver Law Courts—the room at that time new, with unmarked red carpets, and glossy blond wood panelling. My mother and my husband sat with me, alongside not only other Air India family members, but also the families of the accused—we were all together. I listened to B.C. Supreme Court justice Ian B. Josephson give his reasons for judgment, far away on his raised dais, with the great seal of the court at his back, his head receded into his robes. A curved wall of bulletproof Lexan glass separated the body of the court from the rest of us. Behind the Lexan were clerks and sheriffs, the accused and the lawyers, each at their station, performers in a built environment augmented by technology and isolated from its public, in what local avant-garde artist and scholar Judy Radul describes as a “premonition of the future”.

The drama of that moment still resonates with me—hundreds of journalists jostling in corridors and, in that windowless room, the expectancy of those willing conviction and those against.

From the corner of my eye, I saw the flash of neon-coloured “elevator” turbans, worn by female supporters of the accused, and I heard the jingle and jangle of bangles. Somehow these symbols of identity left me feeling bereft. Most of the families of those killed were clad in “western” dress—we were our own small units of grief, clothed in muted colours. Canada made me. Born in Pune, in the Indian state of Maharashtra, I’ve lived in this country since I was a baby. Raised to be “Canadian”, I don’t identify with any particular ethnic group. But on that day, in that place, sitting behind the families of the accused, an awareness seeped in—that I didn’t belong to a big family, that my cultural badges were invisible. What were these badges, really, except for this language in which I write, English, and my religious denomination, that quintessential element of “old Canada”, the United Church? I’m the daughter of one of its ministers.

Time bends as I recall this moment.

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Comments

Cary O'Malley
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Thank you, Renee, for a very provocative article, provocative in the sense of provoking thought in the reader. As an old white Canadian (former immigrant) I agree with and was enlightened by your conclusions that lack of curiosity and ethnocentrism is at the heart of the Air India tragedy. To willingly go out of our comfort zone to understand and be able to praise and criticize other cultures is difficult for many, myself included, but I see it as necessary, especially after reading your article. My ignorance of Indo-Canadian culture as well of other cultures, such as First Nations cultures can only mean I have no voice when it comes to discussing this huge part of "what is Canada". I agree with you that we are in many solitudes, and our country needs the discussions you advocate to survive in the way we all want it to, as a force for good in the world and as a safe place to discuss similarities and differences in cultures.
 
Colleen Fuller
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Renee, that is really beautifully written. I cried and then at the end I felt hopeful that Canadians will have learned something from what happened, something more than about the incompetence of the RCMP, CSIS, the courts, the government, or about the racism that permeated so much of the response to the Air India tragedy. This article should be read by everyone, it is deeply moving and truthful. You are wonderful.
 
Sandra Chamberlain-Snider
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Wonderful piece Renee, your memory of your aunt and uncle's leavetaking is very evocative, resonating with my own family memories. Your writing definitely forwards the hopeful notion of cultural transparency, where we bond over similarities and revel in our differences. Much appreciated by this "hyphenated" Canadian.
 
Irfan Jethwa
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This is one of the greatest article I have ever read through out tragic & painful phase of 25 years of my life. Very well documented, to the point and covering almost every fact. Renee, all of us in the family are proud of you. I am sure my parent would be blessing you from the heaven. Great work, I don't have enough words to describe it. God bless you.
 
Adrienne Drobnies
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Renee, this is such an important article to have written. Thank you for sharing your personal experience so freely and reminding us "for whom the bell tolls." I was profoundly moved by both the article and the memorial you documented in the video. Let us respond to the call you make upon all of us as citizens to mourn the tragic criminal act and its aftermath that was the Air India bombing, and to create a better future.
 
Tim Gallagher
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This is a very moving and well written article that helps put the events of twenty five years ago in its proper context.
 
RickW
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Harper apology: It doesn't hurt, now that 25 years on, the Indo-Canadian vote has become important to the Conservatives.

When the Liberals ran Ottawa, they took for granted much of the "ethnic" vote, and ignored the aftermath of the tragedy of flight 182.
RickW
 
Al Warner
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Wonderefully written article Renee. You are right about it being wrong to take human life and silence is also wrong and truth is positive. Also extemism, if that is like fundamentalism, is also wrong and being curious and promoting understanding and being for educating ourselves is positive. I hope with good discussions and articles like yours our society will move towards understanding and away from ignorance and intololerance. I know a friend's son who used to say that in high school about 15 years ago the different racial groups were very separate at school and after school; my observations are that there seems to be less solitudes and I hope that is true and not over-optimismistic. Thanks again and well done, Renee!
 
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