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Renee Saklikar runs her hand across the names of the dead at the Air India memorial in Vancouver's Stanley Park.Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Stephen Harper will apologize to families who lost loved ones during the 1985 Air India bombing as part of a "very significant announcement" on Wednesday.

Mr. Harper is expected to express contrition for federal failings during an evening memorial service at Humber Bay Park in Toronto marking the 25th anniversary of the tragedy. An apology would lay the foundation for other amends - including compensating families and, eventually, revamping Canada's national-security apparatus.

Treasury Board Minister Stockwell Day said his boss will make "a very significant announcement" that will "definitely add a whole new dimension to the memorial this year." While officials are keeping mum on the details of Mr. Harper's speech, which comes one week after retired Supreme Court justice John Major released a scathing report on the bombing and its aftermath, Mr. Day said the Prime Minister "will make some statements … expressing his feelings on the report and on this terrible tragedy and that will serve to highlight the ceremonies this year."

Senior officials with the RCMP and Canadian Security Intelligence Service will attend, as will Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty and Toronto Mayor David Miller. Similar memorials will be held in Ottawa and Vancouver.

In 1985, federal agents bungled the investigation into a Canadian cell of Sikh extremists who had placed bombs on board two passenger jets - bombs that exploded and killed 331 people. All but one of the perpetrators escaped justice.

In a 4,000-page report, Mr. Major chronicled officials' incompetence and callous insensitivity in their handling of the tragedy. "The families in some ways have often been treated as adversaries," he said. "The time to right that historical wrong is now."

Mr. Major did not recommend an apology, but remarked that successive federal governments - in part out of concern about exposure to lawsuits - had failed to do so.

Mr. Harper called the findings a "damning indictment" of the federal government, and promptly told families he would be apologizing for the errors.

There is no better forum to do so than during the memorial ceremonies this week.

The annual gatherings typically draw relatively small groups. But the 25th anniversary of Canada's worst terrorist attack is poised to attract much larger crowds. Hundreds of victims' relatives are expected to attend the evening ceremonies.

The country's largest Sikh temples - the Ontario Khalsa Darbar in Mississauga and Guru Nanak Sikh temple in Surrey, B.C. - began two days of prayers Monday to commemorate the disaster.

Victims' families are keenly anticipating what the Prime Minister has to say.

David Hayer, a B.C. lawmaker whose father was killed after speaking to police about the terrorist conspiracy, said he will be waiting. "Mr. Harper is the first prime minister who really seriously cared about it," he said. "People have waited 25 years to have government agencies acknowledge that they made mistakes."

Bal Gupta, whose wife died on Air India Flight 182, said he hoped the renewed attention will lead to changes in policing, security operations and the justice system. "Air India did not kill 331 people. The government did not kill 331 people. Those who killed them are still roaming free," he said. "We have to find a way so people like that may not come up in the future."

Attendance at this year's memorials may indicate whether the wider public accepts the Air India bombing as an act of domestic terrorism against Canadian citizens. For years, officials played down its significance by casting it as a foreign tragedy.

"I stress this is a Canadian atrocity," Mr. Major said as he announced his findings. "For too long the greatest loss of Canadian lives at the hands of terrorists has somehow been relegated outside the Canadian consciousness."

The Toronto Humber Bay Park memorial was built in 2007 - and vandalized just last month.

The monument is designed in the shape of a sundial. Vandals spray-painted graffiti across and removed its shadow caster. A manager of parks with the City of Toronto said the memorial was repaired last Friday at a cost of $5,000.

With a report from Ann Hui

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