Editors have come and gone over the past 20 years, but reporter Robert Matas always remained steadfast, his eye fixed on the ball. The ball has been the Air-India investigation and Robert is arguably the leader among a group of determined journalists in Canada who have stuck with the story through thick and long stretches of thin.
This week, he sat in a courthouse he has come to know well and listened as Mr. Justice Ian Bruce Josephson read out his not-guilty verdicts on Ripudaman Singh Malik and Ajaib Singh Bagri, both accused of plotting to blow Air-India Flight 182 out of the sky.
What was Robert's reaction? "I had a journalistic reaction," he told me yesterday. "I had done things on the assumption they would be convicted and now I had to do other things. And how much time would I have to do it?"
Robert is loath to be too precise about his earliest recollections of the 1985 bombing of the Air-India jet that killed all 329 people on board and the companion blast at Tokyo's Narita airport that killed two baggage handlers. He has watched too many witnesses tripped up by their faulty memories. But he does remember reading the accounts in those early days with fascination and taking dictation of a story from a reporter in the field.
By the next year, Robert had begun writing about the Sikh community in his capacity as The Globe's education reporter. The government of Canada had intervened against the granting of a chair in Sikh studies at the University of British Columbia, fearing it would antagonize the Indian government. That led to a five-part series on the Sikh community and ultimately to a piece on the late Talwinder Singh Parmar, widely believed to have masterminded the bombings.
In September of 1988, Robert was sent to Vancouver, in part to continue poking around the Air-India file. There were many lean years to come.
The lowest point for Robert came in November, 1998, with the assassination in Vancouver of Sikh journalist Tara Singh Hayer. No arrest has ever been made and no link to the Air-India attacks proved, but Robert had spent many, many hours talking to Mr. Hayer about the case and was inspired by his courage.
The highest point probably came in June, 2002, when The Globe spearheaded a legal effort to unseal documents from the preliminary hearing that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service was trying to keep under wraps. The opening of those files proved beyond a shadow of doubt what had long been suspected: That the investigation had been botched from the get-go.
The next year, Robert sank his teeth into a batch of documents that allowed the public and families to learn how profoundly the infighting between CSIS and the RCMP crippled efforts to bring the conspirators to justice; how CSIS had destroyed tapes of intercepted phone calls even while negotiating to provide them to police investigators, and how one tape made two days before the attacks had alluded to a plot; and, perhaps most seriously, how the RCMP believed that CSIS was trying to keep the case from going to trial because the spy agency might have had a mole in the midst of the operation.
Through it all, Robert has remained on the trail, without ever losing his sense of perspective. His answer to the question of how he felt in the courtroom Wednesday was instructive: His response was that of a journalist, not a participant.
This was a moment we had been planning for months. Robert had come to Toronto to talk to family members of victims. On Monday, we ran a moving account of a couple who lost their spouses on the doomed Air-India flight, and then found one another.
Wednesday arrived with anticipation. In our morning meeting, Richard Johnson, our graphics editor, discussed a design for the four-page package that would portray all the deceased by age. After the meeting, I accompanied Richard back to his desk to look at it. Sitting there was a front-page design concept featuring the names of all the dead listed by age. It immediately caught my eye. In fact, I couldn't take my eyes off it.
It had emerged out of a conversation earlier in the week between Richard and two of our design wizards, David Pratt and David Woodside. They hadn't yet shown it to anyone else. We decided then and there to use some variation on the theme, whatever the outcome of the trial. We would put the focus on the victims and pay homage to them in a way that had never properly been done.
At our meeting on Thursday morning, several editors expressed disagreement, but, by and large, the group liked what we had done, as did readers who took time to send in comments.
But the most satisfying response didn't arrive until 7:08 Thursday evening, in the form of an e-mail from Venu Thampi, whose family had lost three loved ones. It read in part:
"I salute you and your staff for the Thursday's front-page layout of The Globe and Mail. While it was difficult to look at the two men who were set free, as a law-abiding citizen I understand the need to balance the act. That is the price we have to pay for our civility. It is a travesty of justice, but the system failed us and the accused had to be set free because of the holes in the investigation . . .
"Our family sat together at the coffee table this morning and read out every single name as if we were saying goodbye individually, hoping their souls are resting in peace.
"By printing these names you provided us at least some closure. Our helplessness hurts deeply but our love for our beloved ones endures. We will continue to grieve. The Globe and Mail, this morning, offered a chance for the population to recognize them individually and collectively, thus provided them some dignity."