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Margaret Wente

The Globe and Mail, March 19, 2005

In the summer of 1984, Ujjal Dosanjh, a young Sikh lawyer, looked on in horror as Sikh extremists rioted in the streets of Vancouver. He was appalled at what was happening to his city, his country, and even more appalled that nobody in government seemed to care. ''I'm surprised that these goons are getting through to Canada without any difficulty,'' he told a television interviewer at the time. ''Now what responsibility does the Canadian government take for actually destroying the fabric of my community?''

Less than a year later, Sikh terrorists blew up Air-India Flight 182.

Today, Mr. Dosanjh is a federal government minister himself, heir to those he once denounced. No government officials, not the ones in power then nor any since, have ever taken responsibility. And yet they have much to answer for. Among the many tragedies of Air-India was that it didn't have to happen, would almost certainly not have happened, if the people who ran our country and our law-enforcement agencies had taken seriously the threat from terrorists in our midst.

But they never did. To them, unless it was the Front de libération du Québec, terrorism was something that happened to other people, somewhere else.

After the Air-India plane exploded off the Irish coast, Brian Mulroney, the prime minister, phoned Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi to offer his condolences. Evidently he didn't know that most of the 329 people on board were Canadians, or that the murderers were members of the same extremist group that had assassinated Rajiv's mother.

Since then, some people have offered this story as proof of racism, claiming that Canada would have taken the catastrophe far more seriously if the passengers had been white. But the problem wasn't really racism. It was a total failure of imagination. It was a failure to grasp that the age of terrorism had gone global, and that not even Canada -- what had we ever done to become a target? -- was safe.

Ujjal Dosanjh captured the official reaction in an interview with CBC-TV's Terry Milewski, whose stunning series of reports on Air-India (available on the CBC's website) is a must-see. "Here were some brown guys hurting each other, and it was a problem of 15,000 miles away. It was an Indian problem."

The target of the attack was in fact the government of India, which had cracked down hard on Sikh terrorists. But Canada had become the terrorists' main foreign base of support. It was a safe haven for thousands of militants who came streaming in. Here, they could easily gain entry and operate almost in the open. The law enforcers -- who knew quite well who many of them were -- never laid a finger on them. One was a notorious character named Talwinder Singh Parmar, leader of the militant Babbar Khalsa religious group. He had become a Canadian citizen. The Indian government wanted to extradite him, but the Canadian government, on a silly technicality, refused. He was probably the mastermind behind the Air-India bombings.

Indira Gandhi had complained directly to Pierre Trudeau about Canada's tolerance for militants. After she was murdered, militant Sikhs danced in our streets. Still, nobody wanted to see. The mid-1980s were perhaps the high-water mark of Canada's multicultural dream, in which happy, dancing, colourfully dressed people from all the corners of the Earth would come here to live in harmony. But the dream had a dark part, in the form of murderous sectarian violence. No politicians cared to take that on, and no law enforcers knew how to.

In Vancouver, the brave young Sikh lawyer kept speaking out against the militants. He and his family got death threats, which he reported to the police, who did nothing. He wrote to Mr. Mulroney, warning of the danger. He got no reply. Instead, he was nearly beaten to death with an iron bar. Mr. Dosanjh's warnings were by no means the only ones. The Indians warned Canada repeatedly that Air-India operations were about to be attacked. In the U.S., the FBI was busy rounding up Sikh terrorists. Here, we just sat and watched them. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service even caught Mr. Parmar on a wiretap plotting to kill Rajiv Gandhi on a trip to the United States. Instead of arresting him, they erased the tape.

Among the many reasons it took the prosecution 18 years to put its case together -- a case so flimsy that it wasn't even close -- was that witnesses were awfully hard to find. They decided they would rather stay alive than testify. Some didn't make it. The thugs got to Tara Singh Hayer, a Vancouver newspaper publisher who had broken with the militants and would have been a key witness for the prosecution. He was shot and paralyzed in 1988, then shot and killed in 1998. His murderers have never been found.

"I believe that within our concept of tolerance and diversity we have failed to address the issues of fanaticism," Mr. Dosanjh told Mr. Milewski. "We've ignored fanaticism and we haven't sent the message across that fanaticism has no place in our lives in Canada."

The violent Sikh separatist movement is mostly history now. Mr. Parmar was gunned down by police in Punjab in 1992, and the other ringleaders were killed or rounded up. Canada, in its usual desultory style, finally got around to banning Babbar Khalsa in 2003.

Among the many lessons of Air-India is that in a globalized world, all terrorism is local. We tell ourselves that though the lesson didn't sink in then, it really sank in after 9/11. But did it? Have we really learned that lesson, when politicians sit down to sup with Tamil Tigers, and countless Canadians complacently believe that because nobody hates us, a catastrophe like 9/11 could never happen here?

But it can. It did. And so long as we are in denial, it can again.

mwente@globeandmail.ca

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