SEVERAL months ago, I had the privilege of working with the Vancouver Maritime Museum to curate their exhibition on the history of the Komagata Maru. An interpretive storyteller by profession, I was honoured to have the opportunity to research this important event, and to consider how best to engage visitors with such a complex and troubling history. It is, after all, a story about how Canada receives, and ultimately rejects, a boatful of Indian emigrants—“British subjects” in legal and colonial terms—based solely on stereotypical notions of racial differences. It’s a story about how the desired end—that of a “white man’s country”—was used to justify largely unjust means, turning an autonomous passenger ship into a floating detention shed that was “deliberately kept,” to quote filmmaker Ali Kazimi, “in legal limbo.”
This is a history that I came to as an outsider, as a Chinese-Canadian researcher not familiar with the language or culture of the Punjab, the region from which many of the earliest Indian emigrants came. The opportunity to interview South Asian community members as part of my research process was therefore extremely meaningful for me. It meant a lot to be entrusted with personal stories and to hear how the history of the Komagata Maru has intersected with the lives of many South Asian Canadians today, directly and indirectly.
Some of the stories I heard were sad and challenging, and opened my eyes to the kind of overt racism that existed not only in 1914, but right up to the 50s and early 60s. I had always known that Canada’s history was marked by racism towards those deemed ‘other,’ but to hear, for example, that people of Indian descent were expected to sit at the back of buses, even into the 1950s, really drove home the impact of racism—how it can pervade everyday life down to the most minute of levels.
At the same time, however, I was struck by the resilient spirit that came through again and again in the stories I was privileged to hear. One South Asian pioneer in his 80s shared about having to create his own job—because no one would give an Indian one. Another interviewee told me about how his father fought in the courts to get his industrial first aid certificate—initially denied to him because it was believed no white person would accept first aid from an Indian. These stories of perseverance were inspiring—and it seemed to me that the perseverance shown by the passengers of 1914 in sticking it out two months on a boat, in the heat of summer, with dwindling supplies and a hostile community around them, was just one example of the general resilience of the South Asian community’s history in Canada as a whole. It’s a history that spans over a century, beginning in 1904 when the first emigrants from India came to BC.
Listening to these community members, it became clear that interpreting the story of the Komagata Maru required situating this event within a wider context. The injustice experienced by the passengers was one part of the larger story of the multitude of injustices faced by the Indian pioneer community in Canada—from the early loss of voting rights to the forcible deportations of activists. In turn, the fighting spirit demonstrated by the passengers, and by the countrymen who came to their aid—the fact that the latter raised $25,000 in a matter of weeks to support their friends on board, for example—reflected a longstanding tradition within the Indian community of taking a stand against injustices. It’s a tradition of activism with remarkably early roots in Vancouver.
This theme of unflagging resilience in the face of deep-seated racism became the big idea that informed the exhibition’s development, the stories and images we chose to feature, and the title of the end result. Komagata Maru: Challenging Injustice explores not only discrimination, but also determination. When faced with injustice, the passengers and pioneers of 1914 chose to do something about it, many at their own expense and with great costs beyond the financial. This is a message of continuing relevance. It is one that we can draw inspiration from as we critically consider how racism and injustice still persist—albeit in more subtle forms—and what action we can take to ensure Canada is a country where people of all backgrounds and ethnicities can truly thrive.
Komagata Maru: Challenging Injustice is on display until June 8 at the Vancouver Maritime Museum. For more information, visit:
BY VICKY TRAN
Photos by Gary Fiegehen