The report of the Air India inquiry is that hardest of things - an effort to learn lessons from a terrible event that took place 25 years ago. A quarter-century is a long time in our amnesiac society, and while the terrorist bombing of Air India lingers as a wound to the heart of the families of the victims, it is a forgotten event for most Canadians. Retired Supreme Court justice John Major, who was appointed to head the inquiry in 2006 wants, to his credit, to do something to stop the memory loss, to salve the wounds of the Air India families, and to ensure that the Canadian government never allows itself to repeat the perfect storm of errors and omissions that led to the downing of the Air India flight and to the loss of 329 lives. If any statistic moves you, make it the fact that this was the largest mass murder in Canadian history and that 82 of the victims were under the age of 13.
Mr. Major's effort to memorialize and learn was, he tells us, made all the harder by the prevailing attitudes of the Canadian government, which brought a ton of skepticism to the idea that there was anything still to learn from Air India, the usual cartload of bogus national security confidentiality claims, and a desire to ensure that the government "speak with one voice," less politely called information control.
The lessons of Air India cohere around four deceptively simple themes. The most powerful is that Canadians lack adequate knowledge about terrorism - an ignorance that was flagrant in 1985 and remains flagrant today. Allied to our collective ignorance is a lack of interest in learning lessons and an absence of mechanisms to institutionalize a lessons-learned culture in government. The Air India report also rings warning bells about persistent gaps in our counterterrorism security system, both on the preventive and reactive sides. Inevitably, it gropes for some better bureaucratic schema to try to prevent the repetition of Air India in a post-9/11 world.
Part of the difficulty of learning lessons from an event like Air India is not just in selecting the key lessons - which in my opinion the Air India report does well - but in finding the right fixes. If the biggest problem the report identifies is public ignorance of terrorism, past, present and future, the fix that Mr. Major identifies, while appealing, is far too limited in scope. The fix is to establish an academic centre for the study of terrorism, to be named the "Kanishka Centre" as a way of commemorating the victims of the bombing. While as a single measure this would be an excellent step, it is dwarfed by the scale of the problem and does nothing to address the absence of a public education strategy for which there would have to be many partners, above all a far more pro-active government.
Every major agency in Canada's security and intelligence community should have a lessons-learned cell, but no such thing exists, outside the military, and Mr. Major provides no template for creating them.
Aviation security gaps persist, even after all the post-9/11 changes, and Mr. Major is right to take a bulldog attitude toward fixing some of them - especially air cargo security gaps - but also seems less than attentive to the law of diminishing returns and the overall impact of additional security burdens on a public fed up to the teeth with them.
Reforms to governance are always controversial and it is here I think the Air India report is on relatively weak ground. Some of its notions, including strengthening the capacity of the federal government to prosecute terrorism offences are very worthwhile. But other proposals for strengthening the role of the national security adviser and fundamentally reorienting the RCMP seem less well-grounded in an appreciation of how government operates and what the art of the possible might be.
But everything in the Air India report is up for debate - it deserves our deepest attention. Mr. Major (fearing the worst?) has done his best to ensure his report will not simply sit on government shelves. He wants a transparent mechanism of reporting from the government on responses and implementation of recommendations. Canadians deserve this; Air India victims' families deserve this.
The Harper government should heed this call and be forced to explain what it likes and what it doesn't like about the report and what it intends to do. Parliament should take notice and all parties should assign the Air India watching brief to senior MPs, in the absence of a dedicated parliamentary committee devoted to security and intelligence issues.
The most important thing is for the debate to flourish, for ignorance to be combatted, and for action to be taken - in public.
Wesley Wark is a professor at the Munk School of Global Affairs.