Meera Nair

when copyright and tragedy overlap

In Posts on June 21, 2022 at 7:14 am

It seemed unlikely that my two blogging interests would ever intersect—the dispassionate system of copyright versus the vivid emotion that accompanies recollections of Canada’s worst instance of terrorism. But such is the case today.

It is nearly 37 years since the bombing of Air India 182 on 23 June 1985, with the loss of all 329 people aboard. Their deaths were the outcome of a plot conceived and executed from within Canada. Among the victims were 280 Canadians, including 137 who were under the age of 18.

For decades, Canada’s preference was to distance itself from this tragedy. As I wrote last year: “[At the time] Canada’s seemingly progressive multiculturalism policies collided with the nation’s actual disinterest in its brown-skinned population. Politicians sought support in vote-rich immigrant communities without expending the effort needed to understand the turmoil brewing in the Indian Canadian community. Namely, the extent of hatred for the Indian government by some members of the community.”

That fury was meted out on innocent Canadians. And yet, today, more Canadians are likely aware of the past atrocities committed in India, than the retaliation that transpired here immediately afterwards. It does not help that Canada’s eventual probing of this tragedy, painstaking work carried out by committed public servants, is almost unfindable. Herein lie the copyright aspects—even when one knows what to look for, government documents pertaining to Air India 182 are very difficult to locate.

The first detailed exploration into events surrounding the bombing came in 2005. At the request of Anne McLellan (then serving as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Public Safety Canada) the Honourable Bob Rae was tasked with exploring those painful events to determine if a wider public inquiry would be appropriate. He described events prior to the bombing, the horror of that day and thereafter, and the ensuing Canadian indifference. From his report, Lessons to be Learned:

It has been a challenge, first because providing public policy advice in an area so fraught with emotion and conflict is difficult, second because the intellectual puzzle shrinks in comparison to the courage and example of those citizens who lost so much. There is an Irish saying that at times the world can break your heart. That certainly happened on June 23, 1985.

What was most striking from the copyright-perspective was this notice in the frontmatter.

Such an approach to copyright, crown copyright no less, was almost unheard-of in 2005. Rae’s effort to increase the circulation, and thus understanding, of this report, was innovative at the time. I can only hope that his intentions bore at least some fruit.

When looking for this report, a natural place to start is the Library and Archives Canada website. Yet this report does not surface, even when searching for “Lessons to be learned”.

Subsequent searches on the broader topic and keywords relating to Air India 182 also yielded nothing.

At least Rae’s work can be found as archived content at the Public Safety website. The same cannot be as easily said for Rae’s successor on this topic. Retired Supreme Court Justice John Major was appointed to lead a comprehensive inquiry (as recommended by Rae). The scale of which was daunting, but Major lost no time in addressing perhaps the most pressing need: to give those who suffered unimaginable loss, a voice on the Canadian stage. The first report The Families Remember, was released in 2007 ahead of completion of the inquiry.

[The families of the victims] have already waited much too long for their stories to be told. The publication of this report will mark the first opportunity for Canadians, and particularly young Canadians, to be able to fully understand the tragedy that befell many of their fellow citizens … Parents and children, scholars, scientists, doctors, social workers, business people, artists, humanitarians and students, perished as a result of that cowardly act of terrorism.

Yet Major’s work in its entirety is almost invisible. Officially described as the Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Investigation of the Bombing of Air India Flight 182, spanning multiple volumes, it makes no appearance at the Public Safety website. (Nor does it appear under its companion name: Air India Flight 182: A Canadian Tragedy.) This, despite that the website explicitly offers a search category “Remembering Air India Flight 182.” 

Enacting that search reveals only three entries: Rae’s Lessons to be learned, the seven-page response to Major’s final report (which spanned hundreds of pages), and a progress report dated to 2011.

The WayBack Machine, courtesy of the Internet Archive, reveals that this limited offering dates back to at least 2013. This despite that Major’s inquiry was completed and released in full to the Canadian public on 17 June 2010. Further adding to the peculiarity is that the complete details of the final report, and the activity pertaining to the inquiry, are stored under the auspices of Libraries and Archives Canada, but (again) are not discoverable through their own search function. One needs a savvy librarian, wise to the intricacies of government documentation, to find it.

But for the archaic practice of crown copyright, independent librarians could have maintained a coherent and comprehensive digital archive of all documents relating to a horrific (and preventable) loss of Canadian lives.

As Amanda Wakaruk reminds us:

… works produced by government scientists, analysts, and researchers receive reduced visibility and impact. In addition, cultural memory organizations are unable to act as stewards for government information, resulting in losses of cultural works… Removing copyright controls from government works will allow individuals, corporations, and other organizations to make better use of these important resources. It will also allow librarians to continue their role as stewards of government information in a digital world.

Restoring Air India 182 to Canadian consciousness might not be such an uphill task if its government history was not tucked away from easy public access.  

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: