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She was born in Britain, was a Canadian citizen and had never even set foot in India, but when she died on Air India Flight 182, Indira Kalsi became an Indian in the eyes of Canadians.

Ms. Kalsi and the other 328 victims of the terrorist bombing that destroyed Flight 182 in June, 1985, were instantly seen to be foreign victims of a foreign conflict. Even prime minister Brian Mulroney succumbed to that misdirected reflex, phoning his counterpart in India to express Canada's condolences.

The terrorists who blew up Air India Flight 182 took the victims' lives. But Canadians took the victims' identities, a theft of personal history - a second tragedy - that made their murder even more painful to their families.

For Ms. Kalsi's father, Rattan Singh Kalsi, there is anger over the loss of his daughter, and rage that the demands for a separatist Sikh homeland, Khalistan, culminated in an act of terrorism and mass murder.

But there is lingering anger, too, at the attitude that made his daughter - who had spent two-thirds of her life as a Canadian citizen - into a dead foreigner. "All India lost is a plane," he says.

Mr. Mulroney quickly realized his error, and wrote personal letters of condolences to the Air India families. But for Mr. Kalsi, the damage was done, and is irreparable.

Not until this week, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper formally apologized, did Canada attempt to make emotional atonement to Mr. Kalsi and the other Air India families. "Your pain is our pain. As you grieve, so we grieve," said Mr. Harper. "And, as the years have deepened your grief, so has the understanding of our country grown.'

In the report of the federal commission of inquiry into the Air India investigation, Mr. Justice John Major last week took direct aim at the notion that the attack and its victims were somehow divorced from Canada, his words as unforgiving as they were haunting. "I stress that this is a Canadian atrocity," he said in his opening remarks. "For too long the greatest loss of Canadian lives at the hands of terrorists has been somehow relegated outside the Canadian consciousness."

Beyond the bafflement inherent in the phrase "somehow relegated," Mr. Major did not explore the reason that the murder of Canadians by a terrorist plot hatched in this country became an Indian tragedy. His report documents, in appalling detail, the many security, intelligence and investigative lapses that led to the destruction of Flight 182. But it did not, and could not, document the failure of empathy that cleared the path for those disastrous blunders.

Even as Mr. Harper apologized profusely, he too, left unanswered the question of why - why Canada chose to unremember Air India, and to disown its victims.

There was a twofold denial, both of the victims, and then of the very nature of the bombing as a terrorist attack.

Even 25 years later, during the hearings of the Major commission, the Air India bombing was described as a generic tragedy, a term that draws the scorn of Anil Kapoor, one of the commission's key lawyers. "Getting cancer is a tragedy. This was a terrorist attack."

But the start of the forgetting came before the attack, in the year between the Indian government's assault on the Golden Temple in June, 1984 and the attack on Air India Flight 182. The raid on the holiest shrine in the Sikh religion caused an enormous uproar in India and in the Sikh diaspora in Canada. But for other Canadians, that tumult was a foreign story, at the back of the newspaper or the end of a broadcast. Indira Gandhi's assassination was an Indian misfortune, not a danger signal.

Against that backdrop, then, place the failure of the RCMP to follow up on warnings in the fall of 1984 about a Canadian-designed plot to attack Air India flights.

Administrative bungling, turf wars and outright incompetence all play a part in that failure. But so does an astonishing ignorance that veers into racism. As the Major report documents, the world of Sikh Canadians was so foreign to federal officials that CSIS agents performing surveillance work "were unable to distinguish one traditionally attired Sikh from another."

Or to put it in blunt terms, all Sikhs looked alike to CSIS. It would be comically inept, were it not for the 329 dead.

Racism on the part of mainstream society, genteel or not, is part of the answer to the unremembering of Air India. "Canadians, and particularly Canadian politicians and public leaders, felt these were brown guys fighting over something happening 15,000 miles away," says Ujjal Dosanjh, former B.C. premier and current Liberal MP.

Mr. Dosanjh was one of those "brown guys." He was beaten severely in early 1985 for the crime of speaking out against earlier assaults on fellow moderate Sikhs in British Columbia and other incidents of Sikh extremism.

Still an active politician, Mr. Dosanjh is reluctant to label the 1985-era mindset of Canadians as racist, saying it's unfair to level an en-masse accusation of bigotry. He prefers the term "disconnected."

Either word amounts to the same thing. Canadians knew little, and cared less, about the politics of the Sikh community, which was (and in many ways still is) a world apart. In The Sorrow and the Terror, a 1987 book, authors Clark Blaise and Bharati Mukherjee argue that Canada's multicultural policies played a role as well. State-sponsored multiculturalism fully embraced some groups in the multicultural mosaic, but the Sikhs were not among those most-favoured groups, says Mr. Blaise. The result was a deepening of the isolation from mainstream society.

Mr. Dosanjh also draws a line between multicultural policies and Sikh radicalism, though, in a much different manner. For him, the issue is that other Canadians, in the name of tolerance and diversity, have allowed Sikh extremism to grow unchecked. Astonishingly, he says militancy has grown since 1985, and is more prevalent in Canada than in Punjab, where the Khalistan movement first took root. (In a bitterly ironic bookend to Mr. Mulroney's 1985 condolence call, it was the Indian Prime Minister who last fall warned his Canadian counterpart, Stephen Harper, of the dangers of growing Sikh extremism in this country.)

One need look no further than the annual Vaisakhi Parade in Surrey for proof of enduring extremism - and of courageous opposition to it - within the Sikh community. In 2007, the parade, traditionally held to mark the start of the harvest and the new year in Punjab, became a showcase for Sikh "martyrs," including alleged terrorist leader Talwinder Singh Parmar. This year, Mr. Dosanjh and a provincial parliamentarian were warned to stay away from the parade since organizers could not guarantee their safety. That was seen by Mr. Dosanjh and others as a not-so-veiled threat.

Driving off political opponents with intimations of physical violence is something that would rightly appall most Canadians (and the April incident did result in B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell and other political figures either boycotting or departing the parade). But the fact that such statements are made on public radio, a quarter-century after the Air India attack, underscores the continuing willful blindness of many Canadians to the nature of radicalism within parts of the Sikh community in this country.

There is another sort of willful blindness at work as well, an enduring denial that Canada could be a target, and a home, for terrorists. That denial might be understandable in the Cold War atmosphere of the 1980s, when the Soviet Union was the clear and present danger. Before Air India, the wishful thinking that Canada could isolate itself from terrorist threats might be excused.

But after? It's only possible if Air India was successfully redefined as an Indian tragedy, and the facts of a Canadian-born terrorist attack erased from our collective view. One blindness grew from the other.

That is precisely what happened, with the result that radicalism in the Sikh community has grown since Air India. Other communities - most notably the Tamil diaspora - have suffered from the same not-so-benign neglect by their fellow Canadians.


Air India is sometimes described as Canada's 9/11. That verbal shorthand certainly captures the depth of the pain that the bombing caused, but it ignores the reality that terrorism was not seen as a domestic threat to Canada until Sept. 11, 2001.

Canadian politicians and security officials were reluctant to speak out on such matters for fear of branding entire communities as a threat, says Ron Atkey, chair of CSIS watchdog, the Security Intelligence Review Committee, when the Air India bombing occurred. Echoing Mr. Dosanjh's concerns, Mr. Atkey says Canadian politicians have also been concerned about an electoral backlash if they speak out too aggressively. "Not only is it wrong to smear a whole community, you don't want to lose votes."

The events of this June - Mr. Major's report and the Prime Minister's apology - mark a clear break with that reluctance. Mr. Harper's denunciation in his Wednesday speech of those who come to Canada to carry on "blood feuds of the past" could scarcely have been a more direct rebuttal to the notion that the threat of terrorism can be safely ignored.

As important as that statement is, there were others of far greater significance, those that acknowledged the moral wrong of the 25-year effort to unremember the Air India attack.

No one can return Mr. Kalsi's daughter to him, and no apology, however heartfelt, can diminish his loss. But Mr. Harper's words of atonement did give him back one thing that was stolen: the simple fact that Indira died as a Canadian. "It means we are Canadians, we are accepted now."

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