On June 23, 1985 Air-India Flight 182 a Boeing 747 carrying 329 passengers and crew exploded south of Ireland over the Atlantic ocean. Prior to 9-11, it was the single most deadly terrorist act involving aircraft the world had ever seen. An hour before Flight 182 went down, two baggage handlers at the New Tokyo Airport lost there lives when baggage being loaded onto Air India Flight 301 exploded. Altogether 331 innocent civilians including 280 Canadian citizens lost their lives in the attacks, which are widely believed to have been the work of the Sikh militant group, Babbar Khalsa.
Four years later a single madman killed fourteen women and injured another fourteen people (four men, 10 women) at l'École Polytechnique de Montréal in Quebec. Marc Lépine claimed he was fighting feminism while gunning down his victims, and left behind a suicide note that expanded on his hatred of feminism.
Within a just a couple of years, Lepine's rampage had spawned the White Ribbon Campaign ("Men working to end men's violence against women"), the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women (1991), construction of a number of memorials including those at Minto Park in Ottawa (1992), the Marker of Change in Vancouver (1997), the Place du 6-Décembre-1989 in Montreal (1999), the Memorial of Hope at the University of Windsor (2004), and myriad memorial scholarships. Many organizers and commentators used Lepine's rampage as a marker for the generic capability of men to enact violence against women. The group Montréal Men Against Sexism wrote, "Men kill women and children as a proprietary, vengeful and terrorist act."
Meanwhile, aside from a couple of minor plaques (and I mean two, one in Ottawa and one in Toronto), it took more than 20 years for the first substantial memorial to the victims of Air India 182 to be unveiled. Now this month we have seen two new memorials unveiled; a memorial and playground in in Stanley Park (Vancouver), and another in the GTA (Etobicoke). At the Vancouver unveiling ceremony, relatives of the victims, "lamentedthat it took 20 years for the Canadian government to recognize the bombing of Air India Flight 182 as a Canadian tragedy", reported The Hindu.
So why did the Montreal Massacre warrant such dramatic and continuous demonstrations of grief, such recrimination between the sexes, while the Air India bombing barely registered as a tragedy that we collectively own as Canadians?
In his March 22, 2005 column for McLean's entitled, Human decency and the national interest demand an inquiry into the Air-India tragedy, Ken MacQueen wrote:
There is another nagging issue: a kind of genteel Canadian racism that has plagued this tragedy from the beginning and profoundly wounded many Indo-Canadians. In the immediate aftermath of the crash, then prime minister Brian Mulroney called India's prime minister to offer condolences, although the huge majority of passengers on that plane were Canadian citizens. "Had this been a tragedy that affected mainstream, white, Anglo-Saxon Canadians," said Lata Pada, a Toronto dancer who lost her husband, Vishnu, and two daughters, Brind and Arati, "I think the response would have been very different."
I had just turned twenty when Air India went down, but while the tragedy registered it also seemed very remote, almost like it was someone else's problem. I'm ashamed to recall thinking how screwed up those terrorists were, and why couldn't they keep their turf war in India where it belonged?
Like most Canadians I wasn't motivated to own the victims of Air India 182, but for some reason we all seem to have collectively elected to own the victims of a lunatic gunman in Montreal. Why? Because the victims were white? Because the victims were women? What about the 136 children who died on Flight 182? Would we grieve them more profoundly if they had an action committee?
Canadians demonstrated a profound lack of response to the Air India tragedy. Instead we proved to the world that all Canadians are not created equal, by pouring out torrents of grief, gender recriminations, and societal change in the aftermath of École Polytechnique de Montréal. While violence against women campaigns gained momentum and validity in post-Lepine Canada, in what respect did the state of Indo-Canadians improve post Flight 182? Why has it taken more than twenty years for us to memorialize these victims?
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