John Major—On The Air India Bombing, Sikh Extremism in B.C., And Why Airport Security Is So Lax

John Major On the Air India bombing, Sikh extremism in B.C., and why airport security is still so lax

John Major in conversation
by Philip Slayton
Thursday, July 1, 2010 8:20am

Four years ago, retired Supreme Court judge John Major was appointed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to lead an inquiry into the bungled investigation of the bombing of Air India Flight 182 that killed 329 people. His 4,000-page report was issued last week. In it, he calls for an urgent rethinking of Canadas security system, and offers a scathing review of the roles of the RCMP and CSIS. He spoke to Macleans from his home in Calgary.

Q: Last week, you referred to the error, incompetence and inattention of government agencies. Should Canadians be angry at the failure of government to protect them? Are you angry?
A: Perhaps disappointed is a better word. I would be hopeful that the same set of circumstances wouldnt lead to the same result today, but Im still not comfortable [as far as] the objective of giving Canadians a sense of security, I just dont think we have it.

Q: What steps are not being taken today?
A: There are newer attacks on our security, for instance the homegrown terrorist. Are we doing anything to find the beginning of that? Are we doing anything to look to the public displays of anger by the Sikhs in Surrey, B.C., where politiciansat least up until last yearused to attend celebrations featuring the ringleaders of the Air India explosion?

Q: It is said there are as many, if not more, Sikh extremists in Surrey as in India. What should our government be doing?
A: Well, the Indian forces have been very tough. There have been a lot of executions, a lot of arrests, and a lot of them have come to Canada both legally and illegally. The Sikhs in Surreythe radical Sikhsare still promoting independence in India, and as long as they dont commit a crime there doesnt seem to be any easy way of discouraging them from preaching the value of an independent Khalistan [a separate Sikh state].

Q: Do you think some attempt should be made, when potential immigrants are screened, to ensure they wont bring these grievances and use Canada as a place to fight foreign wars?
A: I think that is crucial. When an immigrant decides to come to Canada he should accept Canada as it is and leave his fights at home, otherwise stay at home. The difficulty is, our immigration system is badly broken, and if somebody gets his foot on Canadian soil he is immediately covered by the Charter of Rights. You know, this is a very liberal, free-speaking country, and I dont think theres any question that the Charterwhich I would still take, warts and alldoes make it easier.

Q: As you say, for a long time this was not seen as a Canadian catastrophe. Most of the people killed were of Indian origin, it was an Air India airplane, it was an Indian problem.
A: Yeah.

Q: And this seems to have spilled over into the attitude of the government. Is that fair?
A: That is fair. It took a little while for the notion to sink in that we were talking, in the main, of second- and third-generation Canadians. And then the government went into a defensive mode, saying, Well, why should we be liable? Prove our negligence.

Q: They treated the families as adversaries.
A: I think it was close to eight years before theyd even acknowledge it was a bomb.

Q: If that plane had been full of WASPs from Rosedale in the city of Toronto, would the treatment of the incident have been the same?
A: If it it had been an Air Canada plane with white Canadians . . . I dont think so. Im certain it wouldnt have been.

Q: You heard lots of testimony from the families of the victims. Is it over now, or do they wantI wont say revengebut justice?
A: I think they would like to see more aggressive anti-terrorism activities. The view I got was quite unselfish. They werent looking for anything for themselves. It was, Protect our children, protect your children, be awake as to whats happening. If the recommendations are put into force, that will go a long way to satisfying them.

Q: They dont want the people who were guilty of such incompetence and inattention to pay?
A: Well, the problem is those people are gone. Most of them were middle-aged mandarins who are now in their 80s, some of them we couldnt interviewthey had Alzheimers diseaseand a number of others had died.

Q: Theres been speculation of an ongoing criminal investigation, and that it still may be possible for some of those involved to be brought to justice. Can you comment on that?
A: Well, Parmar is dead. Johal is dead. Malik and Bagri have been acquitted. Reyat, who made the bomb, is serving penitentiary time for perjury, and I think theres another trial pending. Theres a sense that we know who did it, and theres been no evidence that there were othersalthough Im sure there were sympathizers. But the ringleader has certainly been identified as Parmar, and hes dead.

Q: How do you feel about the acquittal of Malik and Bagri?
A: The report says the RCMP heavy-handedly burned two key witnesses. One woman suffered a loss of memory. She would have testified, so were told, that Bagri came to her house wanting to borrow her car on the night of the loading of the suitcases, saying he had to make a delivery to the airport, and she didnt lend him the car, but she couldnt remember much of that at the trial. The other woman, whose testimony the judge was left in some doubt with, had been interviewed by the RCMP, publicly identified in the Sikh community, and had to go into witness protection. She wasnt, I gather, very co-operative.

Q: Is it true some government institutions and officials who testified tried to mislead you?
A: I had the impression they were not trying to help us. Its like the old fraternity pledges: these were RCMP officers doing their duty, were going to stand by them.

Q: You talk of the tension between CSIS, which wants to keep stuff secret, and the criminal justice system, which wants everything to be public.
A: Sometimes the intelligence is wrapped in a crime, and is the greater good solved by police arresting? CSIS has reason for keeping it, and the RCMP reason for wanting it. A national security adviser could decide what was in the best interests of the country.

Q: Are Canadians safer now when they travel by air than they were, apparently, in 1985?
A: They are safer. The passenger is more thoroughly searched, the hand baggage is searched more carefully, but the perimeter of the airports are not. It was in evidence that when you got top security at Pearson Airport, that permitted you to go anywhere in the airport, including areas that had a combination on the doorknob. And it seemed some of these people had poor memories, because in many cases the combination was written beside the door!

Q: What about air cargo? I believe 80 per cent of air cargo in Canada is carried in passenger aircraft, and security on cargo is still lax.
A: Well, except for cargo thats going to the United Statesand this is a U.S. requirementwhich has to be X-rayed. The rest doesnt. They have two checks. One is they will not let you dictate what airplane you want this parcel to go on. And theres the known shipper. Somebody that does a lot of shipping is supposed to prepare their cargo in such a way that authorities can tell its been checked by the known shipper and sealed. Thats our defence on domestic cargo, and its not very reassuring.

Q: We all know the fate of some previous commissions of inquiry. How do we ensure that your recommendations are dealt with?
A: The pressure has to come from the public, from the families. Theres enough momentum that theyve started to do something about cargo. Well see something about ex gratia payments by an independent body to victims.

Q: No one was really brought to justice after 25 years. How do you feel about that?
A: This report at least opens the government to public scrutiny in a small way. Theres enough blame to go around. Theres the justice system, theres the RCMP, there are airlines. If you want to go back to the source, the lady that permitted the suitcase with the bomb to be checked in with the Air India plane when there was no reservation on the flight . . .

Q: Do we know the name of that person?
A: Yeah.

Q: She didnt testify at the commission?
A: No. And, you know, the families bear her no animosity.

Q: After 25 years, is the story now over? Is your report the last word?
A: I dont think so. It will dim in memory, but every year relatives of the victims go to Irelandthe Irish built a memorial, the first memorial, which is a bit ironic. And they have a public tribute to the victims.

Q: The Irish did better on this one.
A: Oh, absolutely. We had no ambassador in Ireland. There were two civil servants from London sent to Cork, and they were very decent people. They gave evidence, and one of them attended a lot of the hearings. He was almost in tears, and he felt he was unable to do anything, he didnt have any money, he had no instructions. Hed meet the families but he couldnt say to them, Weve got accommodation here or there. Whereas the Irish immediately took them into their homes. Virtually everybody in the town had some family members staying with them. And it was a grisly time because they were trying to recognize bodies.

Q: Have you visited that memorial?
A: No, I havent.

Q: Do you plan to go sometime?
A: I had obvious sympathy for the victims but I had to remain neutral, so I thought it would be inappropriate. Now that its over, Id like to go.