It’s Well Past Time for an Air India Inquiry
by Margret Kopala

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, September 24, 2005

Kim Bolan believes the Air-India disaster needs a public inquiry and she should know.

In 1984, as a self-described rookie, the Vancouver Sun reporter covered Sikh community demonstrations in B.C.’s Lower Mainland protesting the Indian government’s attack on their Golden Temple in Amritsar - the home of Sikhism located in the northern Punjab state of northwestern India. A year later, Canada awakened to the news of the Air-India disaster. The 329 passengers, mostly Canadians of Indian origin, perished when a bomb constructed in British Columbia exploded in the luggage compartment of Flight 182 just past the coast of Ireland. Half way around the world, within the same hour, another bomb exploded at Tokyo’s Narita airport, killing 2 and injuring 4 others.

It was mass murder on a scale unprecedented in Canadian history.

The then 25-year-old reporter quickly surmised these were revenge attacks by militant Sikh separatists. Ms. Bolan set to work in her Vancouver office – work that would culminate in the publication of a book documenting 20 years of criminal investigations and trials, and that drew heavily on expertise she garnered from countless personal interviews and reports. Replete with a cast of hundreds, assassinations and threatened assassinations, including to the author herself, botched investigations and distant locations, the recently published Loss of Faith, How the Air India Bombers Got Away With Murder, is a tragic epic of lives lost and lost faith in a justice system that Bolan concludes “failed to protect the innocent, to punish the guilty, and to bring out the truth”.

For the reader unfamiliar with the details of the Air-India disaster, Bolan pulls it all together. Filmic in scope yet workmanlike in execution, Loss of Faith moves deftly from the heart-rending description of the departure of Air-India passengers from Vancouver to the recovery of their bodies off the coast of Ireland to the matter-of-fact account of how the seeds of terrorism were planted in Canada’s West Coast. Through the activities of charitable organizations and a publicly funded private school, Bolan introduces us to alleged conspirators in the Sikh community. She also takes us to India, Pakistan and England, following the diasporic terrorist trail, and back again to Kamloops, Mississauga and Surrey. Then she turns her reporter’s eye to characters in the legal, intelligence and police communities.

Along the way, Bolan provides an authoritative overview of events in the still unsolved bombing that took place on June 23, 1985. Many of the characters became personal acquaintances and sources. The book, she says, supplies the context (and sometimes information) that wasn’t always available at the trial that acquitted two suspects in March. In one important sense, too, it is an act of expiation. Following an inadvertent remark to a key witness, she worries she may have delayed important information reaching the authorities.

Above all, Loss of Faith it is a work of reportage. It details the who, what, when, why and how of events. Though Bolan doesn’t hesitate to identify the failings of a system that allows tapes to be erased, or terrorist groups to claim charitable status, this is not a book of reflection or analysis. As a reporter must, she leaves that job to the reader. The winner of a Courage in Journalism Award wants an inquiry but insists only that the victims’ families have earned it and that the absence of public accountability for institutional failures must now be addressed.

These reasons are valid but more compelling are those exuding from the subtext of her work. Ongoing investigations (a prosecution witness was murdered) plus the ability of a public inquiry to subpoena former witnesses and suspects suggest piecemeal justice in the Air-India bombing is still possible but a public inquiry will, in the larger context, also spark debate about the role of multiculturalism and the Charter in the new age of terrorism.

More than a betrayal of the victims and their families, however, failure to hold a public inquiry would betray all immigrants who came to Canada seeking the peace, order and good government made possible by vigilance and rigorous application of the rule of law. Loss of Faith shows how these were compromised in the Air-India bombing, how Canada too easily became a haven for terrorists and how, 20 years later, that haven could still exist.

MARGRET KOPALA’s column on western perspectives appears every other week.

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