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The Story of the Komagata Maru Is a Sad Mark on Canada’s Past

Why Prime Minister Trudeau’s decision to formally apologize is so significant

Sikh passengers aboard the Komagata Maru in Vancouver's Burrard Inlet, 1914. (Library and Archives Canada via Wikimedia Commons)

A little more than a century ago, a Japanese steamship called the Komagata Maru sailed into Vancouver’s harbor after making the weeks-long voyage from Hong Kong. Aboard the ship were hundreds of Sikhs who were traveling to Canada in hopes of settling and making a life there. But the ship was never allowed to dock, and most of its passengers were barred from stepping foot onto Canadian shores. Now, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is offering a full, formal apology in a symbolic gesture to make up for the racist and prejudicial policies that led to an incident that some now see as a human rights violation.

To understand why this is causing such a furor in Canada, it’s important to take a look at why the Komagata Maru was barred from docking in the first place. A few decades earlier, in 1879, Canada had officially graduated from a British colony to a Dominion, giving the new North American nation autonomy over its internal affairs. But very quickly, an ugly strain of racism arose. Fearing for their jobs, white Canadians began lashing out against immigrants and Canadians of southeast Asian descent, and the new government began issuing strict policies restricting immigration from countries like China and India, Amy Husser reports for the CBC.

One of the most stringent of these laws was the Continuous Passage Act of 1908. Spurred by race riots and anti-immigrant demonstrations the year before, the act required all immigrants to take a single journey from their point of origin to Canada, with no stops along the way, Husser reports. At the time, this was all but impossible, as any ship traveling from Asia would likely have to pull into port to restock and refuel. Immigrants were also required to have the equivalent of $200 CAD on them—a significant amount at the time for many travelers from southeast Asia.

The Komagata Maru was meant to test this rule. The ship was chartered by a Sikh fisherman, contractor, and workers’ rights activist named Gurdit Singh. Singh and his family were originally from India, which at the time was still a British colony and had been ruled by various European countries for about 200 years. Singh believed that subjects of the British Empire should be allowed to travel freely anywhere within the Empire – and as Canada was still nominally under British rule, its doors should be open. So Singh chartered the Komagata Maru and secured passage to Canada for several hundred Indian, who soon set sail for Vancouver, Ishaan Tharoor writes for the Washington Post.

By the time the ship sailed into Vancouver’s bay, the press had caught wind of it and whipped many white Canadians into a nativist frenzy. Even the premier of British Columbia, Sir Richard McBride, openly admitted to the racism behind the decision to bar the passengers from coming ashore, saying, “To admit Orientals in large numbers would mean the end, the extinction of the white people,” Tharoor writes.

Despite protests from Canadians of Indian descent onshore, the Komagata Maru returned to India after spending two months moored in the bay, just a short distance from Canadian shores. But what happened when the ship made it to India was even more tragic. The Indian colonial government used the incident as an excuse to pass severe laws giving them strict control over the border, and upon the ship’s arrival in Calcutta, local authorities attempted to arrest suspected Sikh radicals, sparking a brutal riot that left 19 men dead, Renisa Mawani writes for the Globe and Mail. Few Indians were allowed to immigrate to Canada until after the Asian nation achieved independence from Britain in 1947. Since then, the story of the Komagata Maru has come to symbolize a shameful part of Canada’s history and a reminder of how prejudice can set people against each other for no reason.

By issuing a formal apology for how Canada treated the people aboard the Komagata Maru, many Asian-Canadians and the descendants of the ship’s passengers believe that Trudeau is taking steps to right the wrongs done to so many people who were unfairly barred from the country.

“It’s staggering,” Sukhi Ghuman tells Ian Bailey for the Globe and Mail. Her great-grandfather was one of the men turned back from Canadian shores aboard the Komagata Maru. “I don’t think [my great-grandfather] ever thought this moment would come.”

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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