By Laura Madokoro
Sometimes the present appears in the history classroom. And so, this post is a reflection about being sad and being a historian more than anything else (though I have a few words to say about pedagogy), and so I thank you in advance for your indulgence.
Like many others, I was deeply saddened to learn about the many lives lost on Ukrainian Air Flight PS 752 when it was shot down on 8 January 2020. When news that a student and alumnus at the university where I teach had been aboard that plane, my sadness amplified. I imagine many others felt the same as they learned about the people who lost their lives on that flight, including many students and others who had connections to communities, businesses and schools that they know. Fifty-seven of the passengers were Canadians.
In the wake of the tragedy, I was struck by the deep outpouring of support and sympathy, captured in the words of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on 11 January 2020 when he recognized that “Canada and the world are in mourning.” He emphasized that the crash was a “national tragedy” and underscored “that all Canadians are shocked and appalled at this senseless loss of life.” At the memorial service held in Edmonton last week, Prime Minister Trudeau continued in this vein, describing a moment of “national pain”, emphasizing that your “entire country stands with you.”
The emphasis on the crash as a national tragedy is significant. As columnist Shree Paradkar noted in a recent Toronto Star column, in the wake of the 1985 Air India Bombing, in which 329 people lost their lives, including 268 Canadians, the federal government and Canadian society as a whole struggled to think of the Canadian victims as citizens. Then prime minister, Brian Mulroney, famously called Prime Minister Ghandi of India to express condolences rather than recognizing that that most of victims–many with South Asian family names–were Canadian citizens, not citizens of India.
Observers familiar with the federal government’s response to the 1985 Air India bombing note as Shree Paradkar does that “now, 35 years later, a similar unfathomable tragedy is urging us, the Canadian public, to come to a collective reckoning and connect with the Canadian tragedy.” In her column, Paradkar notes that very few Canadians recognize 23 June as The National Day of Remembrance for Victims of Terrorism, commemorated for the victims of Air India. Paradkar observes that the exception is former Liberal MP Bob Rae, who also authored Lessons to be Learned, a 2005 public report on the Air India tragedy.
Given Rae’s familiarity with the events that led to the attack on Air India, to the failures of Canada’s intelligence community, and to the failure to address the needs of the families of the victims in the wake of the disaster, it is perhaps not surprising that he makes the annual pilgrimage to the memorial erected at Humber Bay Park East. Rae’s pilgrimage reminds me of the importance of having some kind of knowledge, and even familiarity, with history, and with the histories of the diverse people in our communities.
For the past few years, I have taught a Canadian survey course on the history of post-Confederation Canada, largely inspired by the “Moments that Matter” course developed by Dr. Laura Ishiguro and her colleagues at the University of British Columbia. One of the moments I cover in this course is the 1985 Air India bombing. I do so as a way of thinking about globalization, citizenship and belonging in the wake of the 1971 official multiculturalism policy in Canada and in advance of the 1988 Multiculturalism Act. Each year, I casually ask my students if they have heard of various moments on the syllabus. And each year, very few students put up their hands when I ask about the Air India bombing. Of those that do, many will come and talk to me afterwards about how the bombing affected their families or community. The students who know this history do so because their families and friends have talked about it, or because they have been directly affected by it. Yet because the event was not immediately memorialized, and nationalized, others do not share that connection.
I will be lecturing about Air India later this semester and I know that I will also be talking about the events of this January. Once again, I will ask my students about who has heard of the 1985 terrorist attack that killed 329 people, including eighty-two children. The response might be very different this time. At least I hope it will be. In any event, I will lecture as I always do about globalization, citizenship and belonging but I will do so knowing that the response by the federal government of Canada to Ukrainian Air Flight PS 752 has, in the immediate, been very different from the government’s response thirty five years ago. I also know that it will be a very difficult lecture because as I look out at a classroom filled with bright, curious students who I know will do so much good in the world, I will be thinking of the many international students who lost their lives on that flight. And I will be very, very sad.
Laura Madokoro is a member of the Active History editorial collective.