Imagine If They Had Been White

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Jan 7, 2005
Metro-Vancouver, B.C., Canada
Imagine if they had been white

Jonathan Kay, National Post · Saturday, Jun. 19, 2010

Imagine if they'd spoken English, and if their names had been Kelly and Murphy instead of Parmar, Reyat and Malik. Imagine if the plane the terrorists targeted in 1985 had "British Airways" painted on it instead of "Air India" -- and that the cause they espoused was Irish Republicanism instead of Sikh separatism.

That hypothetical terrorist attack would have been no less despicable. But it also would have been a lot less deadly. In fact, no one at all would have died. The RCMP would have discovered the plot long before the explosives had been placed on the aircraft. The terrorists would have been arrested and jailed, instead of being allowed to kill 329 innocent people over the Atlantic Ocean.

The Air India bombing plot wasn't allowed to proceed because of racism, exactly. At no time did the RCMP, or anyone else in government, decide that lives of Indo-Canadians and Indian nationals en route to India were worth less than white business travellers and tourists flying to London or Tel Aviv. But the race, language and religion of the Sikh terrorists who perpetrated the act was the main reason their plot was allowed to unfold.

We didn't need to wait for this week's report to know this. Five years ago, Vancouver Sun journalists Kim Bolan wrote an outstanding book about flight 182 in which she methodically described all the crucial leads that authorities missed or simply ignored. Conspirator phone calls were bugged and recorded -- but no one bothered to get them translated into English until it was too late. At one point, government agents tailed a trio of conspirators as they tested weapons in a B.C. forest. Their plot was an open secret in certain parts of the Sikh community (Sikhs travelling to India advised one another to take Air Canada) -- but no one in government was paying much attention to what their turbaned constituents were telling them. Unlike the PLO or the IRA, Sikh terrorists didn't even have a catchy acronym. Their obsession -- the carving out of a Sikh homeland from India's Punjab region -- was obscure.

Even after the tragedy, the shameful notion that this was just an intra-Indian fight between different groups of brown people -- nothing to do with Canada itself -- endured. Brian Mulroney, for instance, phoned his opposite in India to express his condolences -- as if this were primarily an Indian disaster. The few Canadian politicians who began to speak openly about Sikh radicalism often were denounced as insensitive. Security agents fretted about being accused of ethnic profiling.

We often speak of 9/11 as Canada's great wake-up call in the fight against terrorism. Yet the fact is that only 24 Canadians died in that tragedy -- less than a tenth as many Canadian citizens died off the coast of Ireland on June 23, 1985. It is a disgrace not only that the Air India attack was permitted to occur, but that it was followed by 16 years of inaction, during which time we remained convinced that terrorism was largely an ethnic problem, like bad drinking water and soccer riots.

I like to believe that it would be next to impossible to hatch another Air India-type attack on Canadian soil. We no longer ignore foreign geopolitical squabbles and radical cliques. And (as the "Toronto 18" terrorism case in 2006 demonstrated) our informant networks and security services are now populated by people with the language skills and community knowledge necessary to pick up on plots at their early stages.

Still, as the 25th anniversary of Canada's worst terrorist attack approaches, it is worth remembering a time when we were not nearly so vigilant. If the memory of the victims means anything, it should be to reinforce our determination never to turn our back on Canadian militant groups--whatever their colour--ever again.


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