OTTAWA - The federal government is challenging a study, commissioned by families of the Air India bombing victims that suggests systemic racism may have played a role in the way officials dealt with the tragedy.

The report, written by sociologist Sherene Razack, was tabled Thursday just as 15 months of hearings before a public inquiry were about to conclude.

Razack pointed no fingers at individual police officers, intelligence operatives or federal bureaucrats and didn't accuse anyone of intentional and overt racism.

But she maintained there is a "powerful impression'' that racial stereotyping -- even if it was unconscious -- was a factor in both the pre-bombing assessment of terrorist threats and the post-bombing investigation of the attack that took 329 lives.

Barney Brucker, the chief lawyer for the government at the inquiry, raised questions about the reliability of the study as soon as it was presented.

"We have been operating under very relaxed rules of evidence (but) I do have some concerns with respect to this report,'' he told commissioner John Major.

"It is argumentative in the extreme. There's a complete lack of evidence for some of these assertions.''

Many of the victims' families have contended for years that the former Conservative government of Brian Mulroney viewed the 1985 downing of Air India Flight 182 as a feud among South Asians that didn't affect the rest of Canadian society.

Major, a former Supreme Court judge, has alluded to that perception several times during his hearings and raised the point again in an interim report issued this week.

"The question that lingers among the families and other Canadians,'' he wrote, "is if Air India Flight 182 had been an Air Canada flight with all fair-skinned Canadians, would the government response have been different?

"There is no way to answer that. As a country we would hope not.''

Raj Anand, the lawyer who tabled the study Thursday on behalf of the victims' families, said outside the hearing room it's a question that deserves further exploration.

Part of Major's mandate, he noted, is to investigate any deficiencies among Canadian officials in their response to the bombing.

That should include a look at whether "Canadian institutions were operating under blinders as a result of systemic discrimination,'' said Anand, a former head of the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

Major, however, said no one study can be definitive on such a sensitive issue and agreed with Brucker that the government deserves a chance to respond to Razack's opinions.

He left it to federal lawyers to decide whether they want to reply in writing or hold additional hearings in the new year to take oral testimony on the matter.

"It's important enough that if we have to reconvene on that particular single matter that we'll do it,'' said Major.

Documents reveal careless words

Razack, who teaches at the University of Toronto's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, noted in her report that some Canadian officials questioned repeated pre-bombing warnings from Air India that the airline could be targeted by Sikh terrorists.

Documents indicate that, in the minds of those bureaucrats, the airline was merely trying to get the federal government to foot the bill for increased security rather than picking up the tab itself.

That attitude raises questions about racial stereotyping, said Razack. "The idea that racial others are crying wolf and are likely wanting something for nothing is solidly entrenched.''

She also pointed to a document immediately after the bombing that referred to "hordes descending'' on Cork as relatives travelled to Ireland to identify the remains of their loved ones. The comment was "careless and disturbing,'' said Razack.

Some of her other points, however, were couched in highly speculative and conditional terms.

She notes, for example, that the RCMP had no explosive-sniffing dogs on duty to check airline baggage the weekend of the bombing because they'd all been sent on a training course.

That decision "may well have been influenced'' by a belief that warnings from Indian authorities were not to be believed, she said _ even though there has been no evidence to that effect at the inquiry.

Barring the possibility of brief hearings in the new year to clear up those or other outstanding matters, Major's main task from now on will be to draft a final report recommending reforms to guard against future terrorist attacks.

He will deal in that volume with the well-publicized turf wars between CSIS and the RCMP that hampered investigation of the bombing.

Major will also address airline and airport security, improved protection for witnesses who fear retaliation if they testify against suspected terrorists and legal reforms to ease future prosecutions.

No date has been set for publication of the report.