Skip to main content

In RCMP staff sergeant A.W. Gillies's memory, nothing about the meeting he attended on June 18, 1985, stands out.

He and a dozen or so members of an interdepartmental task force on Sikh extremism had been gathering regularly for about a month, always in the small, unremarkable board room A2 on the second floor of the Pearson building's Tower A in Ottawa. The room was lined with material to deflect eavesdropping and swept regularly for bugs. At the time, it was considered to be the building's most secure room, aside from the minister's office.

For the purposes of this crew, it was a necessary backdrop. The team of elite level federal staffers was meeting to review classified information on an escalating wave of threats against Indian interests in Canada, which included an almost year-long chorus of alarms.

Story continues below advertisement

"It was decided at these meetings what is an appropriate response to the threats," Mr. Gillies recalled. "You either increased security or you didn't. Responding to a threat was our responsibility," he told The Globe and Mail this week.

What exactly happened in the meeting that day has become the subject of an informational black hole that only threatens to expand as the federal commission of inquiry into the Air India bombings, headed by retired Supreme Court judge John Major, continues.

In the 10 days since James Bartleman, the current Ontario Lieutenant-Governor who was the director-general of security and intelligence in the Department of External Affairs in 1985, testified that he burst into the meeting with an intelligence document forecasting a specific attack on the ill-fated Air India flight out of Montreal, no one has been able -- or willing -- to fully corroborate his report.

The constant scrutiny of the Air India case has increased the reluctance of some key figures who once operated in the heart of this country's intelligence-gathering and law-enforcement communities to revisit Air India's skeletons. Spread out in different corners of the country and well beyond, they're weary, living with fading memories and old age. The wife of one former RCMP official said her husband is done mulling over the confluence of governmental and investigative blunders that have allowed the case to remain an issue. She then slammed down the phone.

For many, the stories that emerged during the past two weeks of testimony have elicited more doubt than pause.

Last week, The Globe contacted dozens from that group of former law enforcement, security and federal officials. Only one -- the long-retired Mr. Gillies, who was a senior NCO in the VIP security branch in June, 1985 -- recalls the June 18 meeting taking place. Another retired officer, superintendent Dick Muir, said he may have been at the meeting. Mr. Muir, who is slated to testify next week, said that his memory has faded so much since 1985 he had to be reminded he was a member of the task force.

For Mr. Gillies's part, his memory remains sharp. But he has no recollection of the exchange Mr. Bartleman described.

Story continues below advertisement

Other Mounties who attended meetings of the task force told The Globe that formal minutes weren't kept, but it was common practice for attendees to file away their own memos documenting the meetings.

The Major commission and the federal Justice Department as well have been hunting frantically to find a paper trail for that day. Their lack of success so far is a mystery given that there seems to be a flood of documentation for other sessions of the task force, as well as events in the days before and immediately after the June 18 meeting. "Records of discussions in this respect, which were held on June 18, 1985, in the presence of CSIS and RCMP representatives could not be found," reads a chronology prepared by the commission.

Cold case turns hot

The bombings are a 22-year old story, the subject of police investigations on two continents, an unsuccessful criminal prosecution and three inquiries. They're also a cold case that has grown hot again amid the glare of the commission, which has lured witnesses from the shadows who have kept silent for nearly a quarter century, such as Mr. Bartleman and the Sûreté du Quebec officer who was belatedly called to bring his bomb-sniffing dog to Mirabel International Airport to check suspicious luggage intended for the doomed flight.

Their testimony has dredged up new questions about the government's response to the crisis. It has also renewed old disputes about the handling of intelligence by law enforcement and security officials, and just how close the authorities came to thwarting the worst mass murder in Canadian history.

In the coming weeks, the Major commission will try to determine how federal security agencies missed the bomb plot while the plotters were both in sight and within earshot. It has so far come across evidence suggesting CSIS misled its oversight panel for six years about how the service bungled wiretap evidence on one of the prime suspects.

Story continues below advertisement

The service had Talwinder Singh Parmar, one of the bomb plot masterminds, on their radar almost from the time of the spy agency's inception in the summer of 1984. The warrant to bug Mr. Parmar and tap his telephone line was one of the very first processed through the new system, although the agency's growing pains stretched the process five months.

CSIS began taping the Punjabi-speaking Mr. Parmar some four months before the bombs exploded on June 23. But the commission was told it took several more weeks before a translator was employed to help agents understand what he was saying, largely because finding the right person was a problem.

For the first time, the commission was told this week that CSIS's regional office in Vancouver didn't secure a translator until June 6, 1985. She had to be whisked into the building by a back door as a security precaution each day. Inside, there were more hurdles. There was an 80-tape backlog of wiretaps needing translation, meaning investigators had no idea what Mr. Parmar and his associates were saying in those conversations. By the time of the bombing 17 days later, the backlog of tapes had grown to 100.

However, only a small number of those turned out to be useful in the investigation of the bombing. In that pre-digital era, CSIS was short on storage facilities for the tapes, and the service's retention policies required that tapes be erased after they were translated. But the quality of the translations has been called into question, largely because the service did not require all transcripts to be recorded verbatim, and many were paraphrased.

The result is that investigators have no way of knowing today whether they were missing recorded conversations of value that took place between the suspects as their bomb plot came closer to fruition.

However, what is known is that CSIS put out more than 70 threat assessments related to Indian interests in Canada, including Air India, in the year leading up to the bombings.

Story continues below advertisement

Maloy Krishna Dhar, a former joint director of the Indian Intelligence Bureau who had diplomatic status in Ottawa in the mid 1980s, said: "All the symptoms were visible."

In a telephone interview from his Delhi home this week, he said: "Anybody could believe these people [Sikh extremists]were on the verge of madness. The impression I got was there was a lack of appreciation of the gravity of the problem."

In early June, Air India forwarded a request for "full and strict security coverage and any other appropriate security measures" to Transport Canada and the RCMP.

"Our information was something like this: extremists were carrying on experimentation with explosives in B.C. We activated our community channels. Through them we got feedback that they were planning to carry out a sabotage of an Air India aircraft flying out of Canada," he said. "This was very much conveyed to the Canadian authorities by us."

WHITE NOISE

With four RCMP officers slated to give testimony to the commission next week, questions remain as to whether the frequency with which Indian officials sounded alarm bells in 1984 and 1985 simply created white noise.

One retired RCMP officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the frequency of similar threats during that time period may have trivialized the information.

"If you have the same specific threat for the last three months, 25 times, it could be very specific but unreliable," the officer said.

RCMP documents show that on June 20 -- two days after Mr. Bartleman says he told the RCMP about the impending threat to Air India, and one day after CSIS pulled back on its investigation of Sikh extremists in B.C. -- RCMP Sgt. Joe MacDonald, of the force's Airport Policing Branch, pledged extra security for Air India's planes. The same extra detail the force had put in place for the first three weekends in June would remain in place over the June 22 weekend. The plan extended to cover the weekly Air India flight scheduled for June 29 as well.

In spite of that effort, when the four extra RCMP officers showed up for detail at the Montreal airport on June 22, the bomb destined to blow Air India Flight 182 out of the sky was already packed into the Boeing 747.

Jacques Shore, the lead lawyer for the families of Air India victims, is convinced other witnesses will come forward, and the flow of answers has just begun.

"There is no statute of limitations on integrity," he said.

'20:05: Air India departed without incident'

Unresolved issues

Departure time

A glaring question that has emerged from a Globe review of RCMP documents, in light of testimony given by Serge Carignan, an officer with the Sûreté du Québec in 1985 who was called to bring his sniffer dog to sub for the RCMP at the Montreal airport on the evening of June 22, 1985, is whether the entire team of eight RCMP officers on duty at Montreal Mirabel International Airport that night were doing their jobs.

While special officers assigned to guard Air India 182 in an apron vehicle and at Gate 107 were clearly in place before takeoff, according to the officers' June 22 log, the handwritten document contains a mystifying entry: "20:05: Air India departed without incident," reads the officers' scrawl. That entry, which puts the flight's departure at 8:05 p.m., is a startling contrast to the 10:18 p.m. departure time the Major commission set out as fact.

Terms of reference

The previous Liberal government asked former Ontario premier Bob Rae to serve as an independent adviser on "what remains to be learned about this tragedy."

Mr. Rae was asked to deliver a report based on a "review" of previous investigations and to consult families of the Air India victims on "outstanding questions." Much of his work was informal and was not conducted at public hearings.

The current judicial inquiry under retired Supreme Court judge John Major has much broader powers and can call witnesses to testify under oath, subpoena documents, and to investigate.

Stephen Harper promised the Air India families in the last election that a Conservative government would convene a formal public inquiry.

The Major commission's terms of reference were approved by Cabinet and ask Mr. Major to examine whether the government's terrorist threat assessment and air transport security measures were adequate in 1985, and if there are current gaps that need to be addressed, perhaps by new anti-terrorism legislation.

Mr. Major is also looking at whether Canada's current laws are adequate to deal with the financing of terrorism. He is to report on whether terrorism criminal trials should be conducted by a three-judge panel, instead of a single judge. The Air India families asked for this after two of the prime suspects were acquitted at a trial in Vancouver two years ago.

The families

In a letter to The Globe and Mail yesterday, Nipa Mukerji wrote: "I lost both of my parents on Air India Flight 182. I have been following the inquiry and am shocked by what I'm reading - it seems my parents and other victims didn't have a chance, with the amount of incompetence and bungling going on. Our parents can't be brought back to life - the only decent thing the government can do now is to offer adequate financial restitution to the family members, irrespective of the paltry sums they settled out of court for years ago, before the full details were known."

Witness list

The commission resumes public hearings Monday. The witnesses for next week include people who might have known of a specific warning about the bombing, if one existed. The scheduled witnesses are three retired Mounties, R.E. Muir, J.B. MacDonald, and Gary Clarke, and a Mountie who is still serving, Gary Carlson. Dale Mattson, a retired Transport Canada official, is also scheduled to appear.

Answers and questions

Shedding new light on a terrorist atrocity

In the first major public inquiry into the government's handling of the Air India disaster and its intelligence-gathering leading up to the events, startling revelations have unfolded. The chart below sets out those new facts, alongside what was previously known. It also highlights what's not known, the many unanswered questions that remain.

PUBLIC RECORD RECENT REVELATIONS UNANSWERED QUESTIONS
MAY AND EARLY JUNE, 1985 A steady drumbeat of warnings about possible attacks in Canada by Sikh extremists is sent by the Indian government to Canada. CSIS says the threat is expected to grow in June. The CSIS regional office in Vancouver finally gets a Punjabi translator for the conversations of Sikh extremists. But the backlog of tapes grows. In early June, 1985, Air India forwards a request to Transport Canada for "full and strict security coverage and other appropriate security measures" for its aircraft when in Canada. The Major commission is now asking whether Canadian authorities let down their guard after June 6, a key date because it was the first anniversary of the Indian government attack on the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar.
JUNE 17 A terrorist suspect cashes a cheque and gets his money in $100 bills. Airline tickets are later purchased in cash in Vancouver for the doomed flight. CSIS watchers, who had heard a test of the bomb triggering mechanism in Duncan, B.C., and believed it to be a gunshot, end their physical surveillance of Talwinder Singh Parmar, one of the plot masterminds. The Major commission can find no record of why physical surveillance was called off.
JUNE 18 CSIS threat assessment says there is a high risk of an attack on Indian interests in Canada and Canada's High Commissioner to India is back in Ottawa for meetings of a government task force on Sikh extremism. James Bartleman, who was director general of security and intelligence in the department of external affairs in 1985, recalls that on this date he read a raw intelligence report -- an intercept of a conversation -- that he believed pointed to an attack on the Air India flight the "coming weekend." He says he took the report to a Mountie, who dismissively told him they already knew about it. The Major commission cannot find this intelligence report to verify it. Officials say there might have been about a half-dozen people in Ottawa who would have seen the raw report. Yet the Justice Department says there are no witnesses who can now corroborate the existence of the raw intelligence or any other "specific threat" to the Air India flight.
JUNE 19 Mr. Parmar , suspected of being the mastermind of the bombing, and an alleged co-conspirator talk cryptically by telephone. CSIS wiretapped the conversation, but was not evaluating it for intelligence value in real time. CSIS headquarters says daily situational reports on Sikh extremism activities are no longer needed. The Major commission cannot find CSIS records of other intercepts of the Parmar calls or even that the calls ever took place. But B.C. Telephone Co. records confirm that the calls were made.
JUNE 20 Telephone tap remains on Mr. Parmar. RCMP headquarters approves keeping the same level of security for the weekend flight as previously. Approval sent to RCMP airport offices in Toronto and Montreal.
JUNE 21 Air India aircraft - a Boeing 747 named the Kanishka after an ancient emperor - is en route to Canada. The backlog of untranslated Parmar tapes reaches 100 despite the efforts to keep up by the Punjabi translator who began working in the CSIS regional office two weeks before.
JUNE 22 The bomb -- hidden in checked baggage -- goes from Vancouver to Toronto on a CP Air flight and then is loaded onto the Air India aircraft in Toronto. The flight makes a final stopover in Montreal. The usual RCMP sniffer dog team at the Montreal airport is away on a training course. A Quebec police sniffer dog team is called to check the flight for explosives during the Montreal stopover, but the call is made late in the process of loading the aircraft. An unexplained entry in an RCMP log says the flight departed more than two hours before it actually took off. The Major commission is examining why the flight left before the Quebec sniffer dog team arrived.

JUNE 23

20:37 GMT

CP 003 departs

from Vancouver

05:51 GMT

Arrives in Tokyo

06:19 GMT

The suitcase, intended for Air India

flight 301, explodes in a transit

area killing two airport workers.

07:14 GMT

Air India flight 182 explodes off the

Irish coast, killing all 329 aboard.

JUNE 23

16:18 GMT

CP 060 departs from Vancouver

20:22 GMT

Arrives in Toronto

00:17 GMT

Air India 181 departs from Toronto,

1 hour, 40 minutes late

02:18 GMT

Air India 182 departs

from Mirabel, 1 hour,

58 minutes late

07:14 GMT

Air India flight 182 explodes off the

Irish coast, killing all 329 aboard.

COMPILED BY JEFF SALLOT AND ROBERT MATAS

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • All comments will be reviewed by one or more moderators before being posted to the site. This should only take a few moments.
  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed. Commenters who repeatedly violate community guidelines may be suspended, causing them to temporarily lose their ability to engage with comments.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.
Cannabis pro newsletter