Tuesday, July 8, 2014

From Expulsion to Embrace: Komagata Maru 100 years later, 1914 - 2014

Dear Saanich South,

You are invited to a community gathering at the Saanich South Constituency Office: 6pm – 8pm, Wednesday July 23, 2014.

On this day, exactly 100 years ago, a steamship called the Komagata Maru left Vancouver Harbour for Calcutta. On board were more than 300 would-be immigrants from India. They had spent the last two months trapped on board the ship in the Burrard Inlet, desperate for food and fresh water, as they tried and failed to get the same right to enter Canada given freely to “white” immigrants.

By learning this history we can appreciate how the Indo-Canadian community has thrived over the last 100 years, and how the restrictions and discrimination of the past have been steadily replaced with opportunities and multiculturalism.

There will be historical displays, Indian food, chai and sweets.

We will celebrate how far we've come and reflect on the challenges which remain.

Hope you can make it!

Please RSVP: rsvp@saanichsouth.ca


Lana Popham, MLA Saanich South

The Komagata Maru, 100 years ago
1914 – 2014: from Expulsion to Embrace
The Komagata Maru was a steamship that sailed from Hong Kong to Vancouver, arriving on May 23, 1914.

On board were 376 passengers, all members of the British Empire. They arrived to start a new life in BC, like hundreds of thousands of other warmly welcomed immigrants in the years before the First World War.

However, these new arrivals received a hostile reception because of who they were: migrants from India. 340 of the passengers were Sikh Punjabis, the rest were Muslims or Hindus from other parts of the sub-continent.

The passengers were unwanted and “illegal” because they were not “White”.

As offensive as this sounds to us today, that was a ‘moral’ position and popular view at the time. Such sentiments were openly stated by everyone from the BC Premier, the local Member of Parliament, the Chief of Police and Military Officials, to the editors of the major newspapers and most in the general public.

Law and regulations were in place to legalize this discrimination. Non-whites must be severely restricted from immigrating to Canada, the logic was, to ensure the dominant culture prospered and the resources and jobs of this bountiful part of the world were reserved for those in power.

For two months a dramatic conflict played out in Victoria, Vancouver and Ottawa. In fact, the story was leading news around the world. It spoke to major world issues of the moment, including the British occupation of India. It led to direct action by the Prime Minister and Members of his Conservative Cabinet …not to mention a dramatic murder and a hanging in Vancouver.

When the Komagata Maru arrived outside the harbour of Vancouver in May 1914, the Canadian government acted aggressively. The Immigration Ministry denied the passengers permission to land and ordered the ship to leave BC waters.

The leader of the passengers was Gurdit Singh,a successful businessman and activist based in Singapore. He believed with good reason that he and his passengers had a legal right to immigrate to Canada as Members of the British Empire. He planned this journey, charted the boat and crew, and sold one-way tickets. In his view this would be put the first of regular such voyages. 

Gurdit Singh refused to leave the Burrard Inlet. However, he had only brought enough water and food for a one-way voyage. As their supplies quickly dwindled, the passengers took stock of their dire predicament. Canada would not let them land. The government refused even to take them into custody on land while while their claims were adjudicated.

After a long and uncomfortable voyage, the passengers found themselves in an anchored and floating prison.

The passengers’ plight brought together a diverse group of supporters, including the nascent Indo-Canadian community and a disparate minority of socialists and progressives.

Funds were raised and a lawyer was hired to fight the government in court. (He later had to flee as his work on behalf of the Komagata Maru generated credible death threats to himself and his wife and child.) The passengers wanted equal treatment with immigrants from other parts of the world, especially north-west Europe, who happened to be welcomed into Canada with open arms by the Canadian Government at the time.

Soon after the Komagata Maru arrived, a rally was organized by Vancouver mayor Truman Baxter in which he and other speakers like Member of Parliament H.H Stevens urged the government to force the ship to leave port immediately. The Immigration Official in charge, Malcolm R.J Reid, worked tirelessly to keep the passengers off-shore.

Meanwhile a "shore committee" was formed which raised funds for the ship and helped hire a lawyer to fight the case in court. Gurdit Singh agreed to file a representative case on behalf of all the passengers in the name of a farmer named Munshi Singh. On July 6th, the full bench of B.C court of appeal gave a unanimous verdict that under new Federal orders-in-council it had no authority to interfere with immigration department.

On July 19, 1914, the ship Sea Lion, with 35 special deputised immigration officers along with 125 Vancouver police officers approached the boat in order to force it from Vancouver harbor. The angry passengers defended themselves by throwing chunks of coal that was onboard as cargo. The Sea Lion was forced to retreat.

On July 21st, the Federal government mobilized its new Royal Canadian Navy and brought in a warship, the HMCS Rainbow to force the Komagata Maru to leave.

By this time the passengers were close to starving and suffering from a lack of drinking water. On July 23, they chose to leave port peacefully. They were not allowed to take on food and water and other supplies they needed for the return voyage until they were well out to sea.

The passengers of the Komagata Maru struggled non-violently for the chance to live in Canada. After exhausting all legal options they agreed to leave, and set a course for Calcutta India on July 23, 1914. The dramatic story continues in India as many were arrested or killed by British-India police soon after their return. Gurdit Singh escaped and went into hiding. Six years later he voluntarily surrendered to the police on the advice of Mahatma Gandhi and spent five years in prison. 

In Canada, the story of the Komagata Maru resonates deeply with many people, especially the Indo-Canadian Community. In many ways it marked a turning point in the long struggle for equality in Canada. Today this moment is celebrated by many Sikh Punjabis because Canada has truly become their home, a place where they live in freedom and strive for what is good.

100 years after the expulsion of the Komagata Maru much has changed. Canadians have become more pluralistic, welcoming of diversity and respectful of human rights.
May this anniversary be celebrated in the spirit of accepting new challenges: we can best honour the Komagata Maru by advancing freedom and justice for all.

Lana Popham