Komagata Maru: Why the apology matters, more than a century later
Josh Elliott, CTVNews.ca
Published Wednesday, May 18, 2016 1:06PM EDT
Last Updated Wednesday, May 18, 2016 2:36PM EDT
Canadian Sikhs have been waiting more than a century for the federal government to formally apologize for detaining a boatload of Indian immigrants off the coast of Vancouver, but at long last, the apology will officially be included in the House of Commons records.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's apology for the Komagata Maru incident comes eight years after the Liberals first pledged to acknowledge the incident in the House of Commons. The Liberal promise came after the South Asian community rejected an apology from then-PM Stephen Harper, which was delivered during a speech at a festival in B.C.
The Komagata Maru incident that began on May 23, 1914 is considered a longstanding injustice among members of Canada's South Asian community. At the time, the Canadian government refused to allow 376 Indians to come ashore as landed immigrants in B.C. The Indian immigrants, who were primarily Sikhs from British India's Punjab province, were left stranded on the boat for two months, thereby denying them official landed immigrant status. The vessel was eventually forced to return to India, where a conflict with British officials led to the deaths of 19 passengers. Many others were forced into hiding as a result.
York University professor and writer Ali Kazimi says there are "many layers" to the Komagata Maru incident.
"In many ways, the government of Canada acted beyond the rule of law," Kazimi told CTV News Channel. He says the government deliberately refused the immigrants the opportunity to come ashore to achieve landed immigrant status, and tried to push them away from shore by denying the ship access to food, water and supplies.
He added that the Komagata Maru incident was not meant to target the Sikh community in particular, but was part of Canada's broader policy of restricting the immigration of South Asians from British India at the time.
Kazimi, who is author of the book "Undesirables: White Canada and the Komagata Maru," said Trudeau's apology is important because it "brings a national focus to a relatively hidden chapter of Canadian history."
Harbhajan Singh Gill, of the Komagata Maru Heritage Foundation, said the apology should be followed up with a greater focus on educating children about historic cases of discrimination. "We shouldn't forget about it, but we need to learn about it," he told CTV News.
Gill said the Komagata Maru incident should be taught in schools, along with other discriminatory issues from Canada's past, including Japanese internment, the Chinese head tax and First Nations residential schools.
"Let's make sure this doesn't happen again," he said.
B.C. Premier Christy Clark praised the federal government's decision to apologize, which comes eight years after her province passed a resolution to issue its own apology.
"Today is part of making sure that we focus everybody on the history," Clark told CTV News in Ottawa on Wednesday. "Some people have been working for 20 years to make this happen, and the gravity of doing it in the House of Commons, expressing regret on behalf of all Canadians – I don't think you can underestimate the impact that that has for people."
She also voiced her support for teaching children about the incident.
"Let's get this into the curriculum – we're doing that in B.C. – so every child grows up knowing that our history isn't spotless," she said.
"We don't want to just wipe away things that we're ashamed of."
Tejpal Singh Sandhu, whose grandfather and great-grandfather were on the Komagata Maru, said the apology shows how much Canada has changed in 102 years.
"Justin Trudeau has done a great job at this apology," Sandhu said in Ottawa.
"This was still a lingering pain with the family, (and) with the community leaders," he said.