A century later, still waiting for an official apology

SENATOR MOBINA JAFFERMAY 23, 1914, was a shameful day in Canadian history. May 23, 1914, was the day that the Komagata Maru, a ship carrying 376 people of South Asian descent, sailed from Japan to the shores of British Columbia. Unfortunately, after spending over a month at sea, the 12 Hindus, 24 Muslims and 340 Sikhs, all of whom were eager to start a new life, were denied entry into Canada.

For two long months 376 passengers were forced to stay on board a ship. Not only was it made clear that their presence in our country was unwelcome by the pleasure crafts that passed by to ridicule the “Hindoo invaders”, Canadian officials also denied passengers very basic necessities such as food and water. For 63 days all of those on board the Komagatu Maru lived in extremely confined spaces fighting hunger and dehydration.

They waited patiently hoping that they would be granted entrance into Canada, a country which they believed would provide them with opportunity and a new beginning. Unfortunately, after spending over two months on Canadian waters, the Komagata Maru, and almost all of those on board were forced to return to Asia.

The Komagata Maru incident occurred during a time in Canadian history where there was a deep-seated prejudice against minorities and immigrants, particularly those who were of South Asian descent. Unfortunately, these prejudices were supported by law for during this time there existed a Continuous Passage Act, which stated that South Asians were only allowed to enter into Canada if they had made a continuous voyage without any stopovers.

This particular clause was implemented in an attempt to stop South Asian immigrants from entering Canada for at this time it was not possible for a ship to travel continuously from India to Canada. Although those on board did abide by this law by departing directly from Japan to Canada without stopping over, the fact that they were still denied entry is a reflection of the racist and discriminatory attitudes that were prevalent at this time.

On August 3, 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized to the South Asian community about the Komagata Maru incident. However the fact that this apology was not delivered in the House of Commons is unacceptable.

On June 21, 2011, I introduced a motion in the Senate of Canada to ask the government of Canada to formally apologize for the Komagata Maru incident. Sadly, the government voted down the motion; but I have not been deterred by this setback. Minority communities have always had to fight long and hard to gain formal recognition on matters like the Komagata Maru. It is not an easy task, but I gain strength from communities who have had to face similar fights and have eventually gained successes.

Historically, the government has extended official apologies in Parliament to acknowledge injustice and wrongdoing. For example, in June of 2010, Prime Minister Harper delivered an official apology to those Aboriginal people who were victims of the Canadian residential school system. Similarly, in 2006, Prime Minister Harper delivered an official apology to those Chinese-Canadian’s who were unfairly taxed when immigrating to Canada.

The 376 passengers on board the Komagata Maru as well as all of those people who were negatively affected by the racist and discriminatory immigration policies that existed at this time also deserve an official apology.

The Canada I know is a country that embraces multiculturalism and welcomes people from all walks of life. The Canada I know prides itself on treating people of all races, religions and creeds with fairness, respect and dignity. Although the Komagata Maru incident happened a century ago, it represents a very sad time in our country’s history.

I have heard from over 10,000 fellow British Columbians, who have all expressed to me that they would like to be given the same respect that has been extended to other groups and receive an apology in Parliament. It is my sincere hope that we will continue debating this important issue both in the Senate and in the House of Commons, and urge our Government to do the right thing and deliver an apology to the South Asian community and to all of those affected by the 1914 Komagata Maru incident.