Vigils and tributes for the 57 Canadian victims of last month’s Iran plane crash left Lata Pada reflecting on her own loss.
Pada’s teenage daughters, Arti and Brinda, as well as her husband Vishnu, were killed in a 1985 Air India plane crash that left 268 Canadians dead.
“The circumstances were almost similar,” the Mississauga, Ont., woman said.
“You just get on every flight like it’s the most ordinary thing to do. It’s full of people happily travelling … nobody ever thinks of not reaching your destination.”
But the Kiev-bound plane shot down in Iran on Jan. 8, killing all 176 passengers on board, is disturbingly familiar for the families of those who died in the Air India disaster.
Many remaining family members say they somewhat understand what Iranian-Canadian families are going through. Dealing with grief on a public stage can be a complicated and scarring experience.
“All they have is memories,” said Chandrima Chakraborty, a cultural studies professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.
Chakraborty has done extensive research on the Air India disaster.
She says that at first, the family members of Air India crash victims had to prove to the Canadian government that they deserved support, as the incident wasn’t viewed as a Canadian disaster at the time.
In 2005, prime minister Paul Martin spoke at the 20th anniversary ceremony of the bombing in Ahakista, Ireland. He stated: “Make no mistake: The flight may have been Air India’s, it may have taken place off the coast of Ireland, but this is a Canadian tragedy.”
Later in 2010, 25 years after the plane crash, former prime minister Stephen Harper issued an apology after a public inquiry, saying a “cascade of errors” by Canadian officials allowed the bomb to get on the plane.
He also apologized for the government treating families with “scant respect or consideration.”
While the federal government has done a much better job supporting and embracing Iranian-Canadian families in the wake of the Iran plane crash, we need to look beyond disasters to hold ourselves accountable for how much we embrace diaspora communities on a day-to-day basis, explained Chakraborty.
“You can say yes, Canada has matured. But this should not be a jumping-off point of saying, ‘look how much better we are,’ so we don’t have to deal with the everyday grief,” she said.
Global News spoke with Canadians who lost family members in the Air India tragedy about how they are able to address what happened decades later. These victims’ families also offered their support to Iranian-Canadian families and discussed ways to cope with the loss years later.
Embracing the Iranian diaspora communities
The Iran plane crash on Jan. 8, 2020 happened while Pada was visiting India. She said she was comforted to see Prime Minister Justin Trudeau focus on the families following the crash.
“He said he would get to the bottom of what caused this …. he was very compassionate,” she said.
Pada is a celebrated Indian-Canadian dancer based in Mississauga, Ont., whose accolades include the Order of Canada.
She says the story wasn’t the same for surviving families of the Air India crash. Then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney issued condolences to India, even though the majority of victims were Canadian.
“Nobody ever thought of us as Canadians … they didn’t think of it as a Canadian tragedy.”
Embracing the Iranian diaspora communities throughout Canada is crucial in the next few months, and it’s been “heartwarming” to see so many attend memorials, said Pada.
Although Pada was in India during the time of the Iran plane crash, she wishes she had been at home.
“That’s what I would have done … just completely gone out to them,” she said. “That’s the solidarity we need to build.”
It is this type of support that has made a difference for her.
“I’ve faced nothing by goodwill and support. I’ve made so many friends because virtual strangers have reached out to me ever since the Air India tragedy,” she said.
The importance of creating memorials
The circumstances around the Iran plane crash were a stark reminder for Ottawa native Rajiv Kalsi that sometimes, life can suddenly change due to seemingly faraway political situations.
Kalsi lost his 21-year-old sister Indira in the crash.
“We sort of knew there were things that were going on in India, but you never really [think] it would affect you or your family,” he said.
“Innocent people are targeted for political means … that’s what I was thinking and then feeling about the [Iranian] families.”
Kalsi’s grandmother also died the same month of the crash in India, possibly from what some believe as a form of shock.
He says in 2020, Canada needs to ensure they remember and honour the victims of the Iran plane crash and give them a memorial to visit.
“That took a long time to happen with Air India because it was left up to the individual families,” he said.
For Kalsi and his parents, the memorial that was set up in Ireland became very important for them.
“My parents went every year, at least 20 years after the crash,” he said.
People in Ireland truly embraced his parents, Kalsi explained, pausing to collect his emotions.
Kalsi’s father, Rattan Singh Kalsi, passed away in 2016. He asked that his ashes be scattered in the waters off the coast of the memorial, as the location became deeply important to him.
“Our sister’s body was never found. So a memorial, those are tangible things … and you come to grieve with other people,” he said. “It’s really the only point of contact. I mean, you have a plane that blew up; you have nothing.”
Mental health support and counselling for the families — and funding for that — is also crucial, he said. His father always felt guilty for buying Indira her plane ticket.
“I know my father went through a breakdown, and it took him years to figure out where to go next,” he said. “I think it could be the same for some of these families … they need support to get through it.”
Eisha Marjara says her jaw dropped
Eisha Marjara says her “jaw dropped” when she saw how many Canadians died on Jan. 8.
“I’d never seen that since Air India,” she said. Marjara lost her mother Devinder and her sister Seema on the Air India flight.
But as a film director and writer, Marjara says she’s been confronting the Air India disaster for a long time and doesn’t shy away from the subject. She’s currently working on a film that looks at how the disaster impacts future generations for decades to come.
“The story of the airline in Iran is going to get buried under other news … but the lives of these family members is going to go on,” said Marjara, who lives in Montreal.
At the time of the Air India bombing, Marjara was in the hospital battling anorexia. The speed of everything happening at once made it difficult for her to process the death of her family members.
“The tragedy was like an entangled web of just so many events … It was just really heavy and long and confusing,” she said. “It just made the grieving process more complicated for everybody.”
Developing a film is her solution to the silence and uncertainty that sometimes follows after this kind of tragedy, which is why we need to keep talking about what the Iranian-Canadian families are going through, she said.
“It’s this whole idea (that) holding a community during a difficult period is important,” she said. Making Iranian-Canadians feel that they are at home in Canada, even if they haven’t been impacted by the crash, is vital, she explained.
“Especially for the Iranian-Canadian community, who maybe have not felt that they’ve belonged. It’s been really loud and clear, that yes, you are Canadian, and yes, you do belong,” she said.
When the news becomes hard to read
When news of the Jan. 8 crash first made headlines, Renee Sarojini Saklikar said her first reaction was to not engage with it.
“I didn’t feel that my initial reactions were very noble… it’s so painful,” she said.
“I didn’t want to be put in that position of being in that grief moment. I’ve worked so hard in my life to get out of that moment.”
But she decided to attend memorials for those who died in the Iran plane crash.
Salikar lost her aunt Zeb and uncle Omar in the Air India bombing. She wrote about how the Iran plane crash brought her back to that place of grief for Chatelaine.
She says silence around these topics is a problem, which is why giving everyone the chance to tell their own stories is important.
“When you lose a loved one to a murder in a public tragedy that involves a bombing, that is a whole other zone of trauma,” she said. “It’s important to not make presumptions. Every single person will have their own individual grief trajectory — grief is unique.”
For Saklikar, she doesn’t want to be seen as a victim, and it took her time to figure out how she wanted to live her life following the crash.
“What I have to ask myself every day is what did my aunt and uncle die for? They were talented doctors at the height of these lives,” she said.
“It doesn’t mean we don’t have profound moments of anxiety and grief. But we don’t want to be trapped in that mode.
“So it’s just my hope and wish to these dear families who have recently lost loves ones in this horrific act; I just hope we can all support you.”