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Asian Heritage Month: The Komagata Maru Incident (1914)

All through this month, the library will be highlighting historical events that relate to policies surrounding peoples of Asian and South Asian origin. Today, Canada would not be quite as vibrant without the multiplicity of peoples that make up the colorful mosaic of our current society. However, that was not always the case.

As we have seen in last week’s post, the government of Canada placed many challenges to immigrants of different ethnicities, in order to discourage them from coming to Canada. This was just as true for people coming from India as those coming from China. An Order-in-Council was passed in Ottawa on January 7, 1908 which stated that immigrants could be barred from if they did not make a continuous journey from their place of origin to their intended destination. This was intentionally unfair, as there were no steamships that took the direct route from India to Canada, having to refuel or take on food at places like Hong Kong or Japan. Furthermore, the government also required persons coming from Asia to have $200 before they would be admitted to Canada. This was like the Chinese head tax, as it was an exorbitant sum that only the wealthiest South-east Asians would be likely to have in their possession.

Many Indians had emigrated to both Canada and the United States for better economic opportunities, despite the racism and discrimination they would face. Many people were also hostile to non-white immigration, as there was a fear that Asian immigrants would take jobs away from more deserving Canadian citizens who were white. However, Indian businessmen who were active on the political scene kept pushing to gain admittance to Canada, as they reasoned they could more easily get there than in the States, as both India and Canada were Dominions of the British Empire. As citizens of the British Empire, they should be able to come to Canada since they were loyal British subjects.

As such, this drive to influence Canadian immigration policy is what motivated Gurdit Singh, an affluent merchant on business in Hong Kong, to charter a Japanese-owned, British-built steamship the Komagata Maru. He also managed to enlist 376 prospective passengers of Sikh descent who wanted to find a better life in Canada. The ship left Hong Kong on April 14th, 1914 and landed at the port of Vancouver on May 22nd.

Figure 1: Passengers from the Komagata Maru pose for a photo. Courtesy of the City of Vancouver Archives.

The passengers’ hopes of a warm welcome were dashed when the authorities refused to let Singh and the other passengers land, cutting him off from his funds and social connections in Vancouver. However, the South Asian community rallied behind the passengers and raised funds to hire a lawyer to contest the case in court. In retaliation, life was made very difficult for the passengers, including denying them food and water and even sending the military on board to quell a passenger riot.

Figure 2: Officials boarding the Komagata Maru, July 1914. Courtesy of the City of Vancouver Archives.

Eventually, the passengers ended up losing the court case, and were forced to leave the port of Vancouver, escorted by the British gunship HCMS Rainbow on July 23rd 1914. Upon the arrival of the passengers back in India, the military suspected them of holding revolutionary and anti-British sentiments and fired on them, resulting in the deaths of 19 passengers, with the rest of them being imprisoned for several years.

In 2008, Stephen Harper apologized to a Sikh gathering in Surrey, British Colombia for the past actions of the Canadian government. Later, Justin Trudeau issued a more formal apology in the House of Commons in 2016, stating that "no words can erase the pain and suffering they experienced".

You can learn more about this episode in Canadian history by going to Simon Fraser University's extensive online exhibition called "Komagata Maru: Continuing the Journey".

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