Families of the Air India bombing victims are moving from group memorials to small, private gatherings and online condolences as they commemorate the 35th anniversary of the worst mass murder in Canadian history during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Physical distancing rules and restrictions on gatherings of more than 50 people have resulted in a shift from the in-person memorial services that are held annually in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Vancouver.
Air India Flight 182 disappeared from radar off the coast of Ireland after a bomb exploded on the airplane on June 23, 1985, killing 329 people.
Among the dead were 280 Canadians and 86 children.
Renée Sarojini Saklikar, who lost her uncle, Dr. Umar Jethwa, and aunt, Zebunnisa Jethwa, in the bombing, visited the memorial in Vancouver’s Stanley Park on Monday to mourn them privately.
“There is always this reminder of the senselessness of these sorts of acts. The violence of it is always brought home to me,” she said.
Saklikar, who is married to B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix, said she felt blessed to be able to pay her respects in the peaceful setting and recognized not all family members of victims may be in a position to do so.
Her 82-year-old mother, whose younger sister died in the bombing, is in a long-term care facility and unable to visit the site.
Saklikar said her first thoughts are with her cousin, who was orphaned by the bombing.
Only one man, Inderjit Singh Reyat, has been convicted in relation to the bombing and is now free, having served 30 years for lying at trial and for his role in the crime.
Crown lawyers alleged the bombing was a terrorist attack against state-owned Air India, an act of revenge by B.C.-based Sikh extremists against the Indian government for ordering the army to raid Sikhism’s holiest shrine, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, in June 1984.
As well as the 329 killed on the plane, two baggage handlers were killed at Tokyo’s Narita airport on the same day when a suitcase exploded before it was loaded onto an Air India plane.
Reyat, a mechanic, pleaded guilty to reduced charges of helping to make the bombs at his home in Duncan, B.C.
He had also been convicted of committing perjury at the trials of two other B.C. men, Ajaib Singh Bagri and Ripudaman Singh Malik, who were acquitted of murder and conspiracy charges in the two bombings.
The man who Canadian authorities suspected of being the mastermind of the bomb plot, Talwinder Singh Parmar, was killed in India by police.
“There were a lot of mistakes and errors made throughout the Air India ordeal, I would call it — the investigation,” said Susheel Gupta, who was 12 years old when his 37-year-old mother Ramwati was killed in the bombing.
Gupta, who is based in Ottawa, said because of those mistakes and the system that led to them, he became a lawyer, then a federal prosecutor. He now works with the RCMP on counterterrorism files.
He pointed out Canadians cannot become complacent and need to be aware of the history of the Air India bombing.
“It’s critical that Canadians take awareness of this so they don’t keep feeling that terrorism is something that happens in other countries,” he said.
Gupta said members of the Air India Families Association, realizing they wouldn’t be able to gather together for their loved ones, are relying on technology to stay connected on a difficult day.
“[We’ve] created a YouTube channel for families and officials to share statements which will be available to the public and victims’ families all over the world to a view. And in that sense, hopefully, we can mourn together,” Gupta said.
Gupta said he will be remembering his mother by talking to his two young daughters, aged 8 and 5, about her and visiting a local memorial to reflect on all the victims of the Air India bombing.