VANCOUVER – The government of Canada treated the families of victims of the Air India disaster as “adversaries” and attempted to shield itself from civil liabilities to the point where it totally ignored the needs of those who had been terrorized by the biggest act of aviation sabotage in world history.
That is the damning conclusion of the Air India inquiry commission report released this morning in Ottawa. As well, the report blasts incompetence in functioning of the RCMP and CSIS and recommends the formation of a Security Superman to act as a coordinator of functions of intelligence gathering and criminal prosecutions.
“The families of the victims of the bombing were poorly treated by their Government. For the longest period of time the Government seemed dedicated to self justification and denial of fault that led it to cast a blind eye and a deaf ear to the suffering and the needs of the families,” said the commission headed by John Major.
“The Government was too preoccupied with its international reputation to appreciate its obligations to the families of the victims. It was so keen on debunking any notion that the bombing was tied to deficiencies in Canadian safety and security that it alienated the very people who deserved support and empathy: the families of the victims,” it said.
“It is hard to believe that a desire to avoid civil liability to the families of the victims – for an amount that, in the big picture, would not have constituted a rounding error in the budget of any of the Canadian agencies involved – would have motivated the Government of Canada to turn its back on the victims for so long,” said the damning report which outlines the attempts by the government to obfuscate and deny that a bombing was responsible for the tragedy.
It compared the non-compassionate approach of the government of Canada – bent on protecting itself – and the response by the U.S. government in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy.
“In stark contrast to the compassion shown by the Government of the United States to the families of the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, for all too long the Government of Canada treated the families of the victims of the terrorist attack on Flight 182 as adversaries. The nadir of this attitude was displayed when the families’ requests for financial assistance were met by the Government’s callous advice to seek help from the welfare system.”
These government actions – denial and obfuscation – were first pointed out in a 1986 book entitled “The Death of Air India Flight 182? written by the author of this article. The book, and a subsequent one – The Margin of Terror – highlighted how the government told an Irish coroner’s court that it did not have evidence to conclude a bomb brought down the flight with 329 people on board.
John Major’s report found that fact to be atrocious.
“The Government response soon became focused on public relations and on defending the reputation of the Government and its agencies in order to protect them from criticism and from any possible finding of liability or any obligation to compensate the families of the victims.
“Instructions were issued to avoid referring to the crash as a “bombing.” Canada took the singular position at the Coroner’s Inquest in Ireland that there was no evidence of a bomb aboard Flight 182 and, based on this argument, the Coroner instructed the jury that they should make no recommendations about the cause of the crash.
“The Canadian Aviation Safety Board was prevented from filing a separate brief with the Kirpal Commission, which had been established by the Government of India to investigate the crash. The purpose was to ensure a consistent and positive portrayal of the safety and security arrangements that were in place in Canada at the time of the bombing. In the result, Canada succeeded in keeping any conclusions about responsibility for the crash out of the Kirpal Report.
“Issues of civil liability loomed large. The Government denied any obligation to compensate the families of the victims and treated the families as adversaries,” it said.
The report’s findings about failures of CSIS and RCMP were also equally stinging.
“In the wake of the bombing, each of CSIS and the RCMP became fixated on a restrictive understanding of its own mandate, to the detriment of a co- ordinated effort to investigate the bombing. CSIS’s focus on keeping its intelligence out of the judicial process led to the loss of important evidence and needlessly complicated the Reyat and Air India prosecutions,” said the commission report.
”The RCMP’s unimaginative approach to the investigation, as well as its dysfunctional focus on self-justification and on the pursuit of ready “evidence,” led to the premature dismissal of potential leads, compromised the utility of human sources, and drove a further unnecessary wedge between it and CSIS,” the report said.
“The RCMP post-bombing investigation was marred by a number of factors. The investigation was conducted by a task force made up of members seconded from federal units of the RCMP and was short on practical experience investigating serious crimes. The approach taken was a generally unimaginative one, more suitable to the investigation of an ordinary crime than of a terrorist conspiracy, with an overly narrow and premature focus on evidentiary issues.
“The task force seemed stymied by the lack of a crime scene and the absence of other usual features of a criminal offence. The Narita bombing, which did have a crime scene and, through the excellent work of the Japanese police, had evidence to link the crime to a specific individual, soon became the focus.
“In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, RCMP management showed little interest in treating the investigation of the Air India bombing as a conspiracy. Little progress was made using conventional investigative approaches, and the efforts to turn CSIS sources into witnesses or to recruit RCMP sources came up empty. Morale was low and personnel changes were frequent, allowing for little continuity. At one point, the Air India investigation was assigned to a single RCMP investigator, whose focus was on the coordination of attempts to raise the wreckage of the plane from the ocean bottom and on file administration. In this time frame, an attempt was made at E Division to formally shut down the investigation.”
In relation to the investigation, it was pointed out that despite a multi-year investigation, most of the sources used at the trial of Ripudaman Singh Malik and Ajaib Singh Bagri and their cohort Inderjit Singh Reyat, most sources brought forth as witnesses were dug up by CSIS.
That means in effect that RCMP’s investigation was fruitless and the RCMP had no clue how to handle the case.
Major said: “On the other hand, CSIS did have some cause to be sceptical of the RCMP’s ability to handle sensitive intelligence information. On one occasion, the RCMP included sensitive CSIS information in court documents without CSIS’s permission, and thereby endangered CSIS’s ongoing operations”
“Ultimately, CSIS information was necessary to the prosecution in both the Narita and the Air India trials, for use as evidence and for purposes of disclosure to the defence. This led to ongoing disputes about the use of CSIS information, disputes in which CSIS interests in maintaining the confidentiality of its intelligence constantly clashed with the needs of the criminal justice system for full disclosure. Each side had difficulty understanding the perspective of the other, and each agency frequently attributed bad faith to the other agency’s position.”
“There is no evidence that CSIS ultimately withheld any relevant information from the RCMP. However, as outlined in the testimony of Crown Prosecutor James Jardine, who is now a provincial Court judge in British Columbia, the process of disclosure was slow, intermittent and acrimonious. CSIS waited until it had absolutely no other choice but to disclose, and the RCMP continued to harbour suspicions that CSIS had information that it had not disclosed.”
Further, the commission said RCMP failed to protect government witnesses such as a woman known as Ms. E – who was found wanting in credibility to the point that it led to a dismissal of charges against Malik and Bagri.
The commission was critical of the lack of protection for Tara Singh Hayer, who had agreed later to become a police informant. He was killed in 1998 despite RCMP’s awareness that his life was in danger.
Hayer was a key proponent of Sikh militancy starting in 1981 and allowed renegade Sikhs to establish a consulate in his own office. He promoted Sikh terrorism and violence within the community with his writings and was commended by an umbrella body of Sikh terrorists for his outspoken support for the cause of Khalistan. The support and articles written by Hayer created more communal strife at a point in time when Sikh militancy rocketed in 1984 and 1985.
Much later, Hayer agreed to become a crown witness but was gunned down in his garage in 1998. There is no evidence at this point that his murder had anything to do with the Air India bombing and at that time he was involved in another battle between modernists and traditionalists over kitchen meals and table and chairs.
However, the commission was concerned that his life had not been protected as a government witness.
The commission recommended the appointment of a Security Czar to coordinate the anti-terrorism approach of the government.
It also made a key recommendation for a one time payment to victim families of a sum of money to be recommended by an impartial arbitrator. The victims were given nothing despite government negligence to prevent the bombing.
The only settlement they ever received was a small sum of money that is regularly paid out by airline insurance companies for aircraft accidents not caused by government neglect to provide adequate security.
Salim Jiwa is the author of the books The Death of Air India Flight 182 and Margin of Terror, published by W. H. Allen, 1986, and Key Porter, 2006.