Komagata Maru – reflections on immigration policy

MAY 23 will be the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the Komagata Maru in Vancouver. Its arrival and the efforts of its passengers to remain in Canada were one of the most emotional events in Canadian immigration history. In the next few weeks leading up to the anniversary, I will write about the incident and consider what changes have been made to Canadian immigration policy since then.

Humanity has been migrating through the ages. As populations levels increase, with more competition for limited resources, people have moved to seek better opportunities. The same pressures motivate migration today. A global industrial economy creates demand for workers. Capitalism results in a desire by business to decrease labour costs. Governments attempt to balance competing interests.

Other human factors give rise to migration, such as religion, race and ethnicity, resulting in wars and other conflicts. There are many examples in recent centuries. To name only a few, land clearances in Scotland following a political uprising in the mid-18th century displaced tens of thousands of Scots. A million Irish migrated as a result of the famine of the 1840s. Partition of India in 1947 displaced about 14 million people.

In the past year complaints by unions and other workers about displacement by temporary foreign workers have filled the news. The government is creating an Express Entry program to assist business in quickly finding qualified permanent workers. All of this is playing out in a global economy hit by a recession since 2008, with fears that a slowdown in the Chinese economy will exaggerate the problems.

Similar headlines were written over a century ago. A global depression in 1907 created conflict in British Columbia, with unions demanding a prohibition against cheaper imported labour by businesses. Racial tension and prejudice arose as most of the imported labour was coming from China, Japan and India.

The B.C. legislature passed laws to restrict Asian immigration. Most of those laws were disallowed by the federal government, under a constitutional provision that still exists. Previously, B.C.’s Lieutenant Governor, James Dunsmuir, refused to give royal assent to one Act, after which he, as owner of major mining interests in B.C., signed a contract to import foreign miners. The federal government had started restricting Chinese immigration in 1885 by imposing a head tax on Chinese migrants. Despite increasing the fee twice by 1903, migration continued.

Businesses argued against restrictions. The Canadian Pacific Railway, which ran a Pacific steamship service, relied upon migration for that service. It had been promoting migration from India. Following race riots in Vancouver in September, 1907, the federal government reached an agreement with Japan to limit emigration to Canada. The government sought a way to limit Indian migration without overtly offending British Indian interests in controlling Indian nationalism.

A new Immigration Act was passed in 1906. The 1906 Act allowed the government more flexibility in controlling migration. In January, 1908, the government enacted a regulation that, where in the opinion of the Interior Minister the condition of the labour market made it desirable, immigrants would be prohibited from landing or coming into Canada unless they came from the country of their birth, or citizenship, by a continuous journey and on through tickets purchased before leaving the country of their birth, or citizenship. It also passed a rule to prevent migration of unemployed poor from Britain.

The CPR challenged the regulation as it effectively eliminated migration from India. One of its ships, the SS Monteagle, arrived in Victoria in March, 1908, with 183 Indian immigrants. The migrants were first subject to an education test under a B.C. Immigration Act. About 31 failed the test, resulting in an order for their imprisonment. On March 13, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Morrison set aside the convictions, by finding the B.C. law unlawful, as it was contrary to the paramount federal Immigration Act.

Under the federal Immigration Act, 25 were excluded on medical grounds, the rest under the continuous journey order. The CPR contested the exclusions, with the lead applicant named Behari Lal. On March 24, Justice Clement ruled the order invalid, as the Immigration Act did not give power to the government to delegate authority to the Interior Minister to determine prohibited classes.

Within three days the government passed a new continuous journey order, without reference to the Interior Minister. It also introduced an amendment to the Immigration Act to expressly authorize a continuous journey regulation, that was assented into law on April 10. It rewrote the continuous journey order again in May. In June the government passed another rule requiring “Asiatic immigrants” to possess $200, creating a further barrier against Indian migration.

The CPR made no further attempt to challenge the exclusionary rules. It succumbed to pressure and eliminated any direct passage or through ticketing from India. The government set up entry points along the U.S. border in 1908 to control inland movement. Increasing migration prompted the government to introduce a new Immigration Act that was approved by Parliament in May, 1910. The 1910 Act would remain in effect until 1953. Within a week, cabinet reenacted the continuous journey and $200 fee requirement rules under the new Act.

The stage was set for further challenges to the law. Those would come from an Indian political activist in 1911, the arrival of another ship with Indian migrants at Victoria in October, 1913, and with the Komagata Maru’s arrival. They will be dealt with in next week’s installment.

William Macintosh started practising as an immigration lawyer in 1984. You can reach him for advice or help on any immigration or citizenship matter at 778-714-8787 or by email at macintoshlaw@gmail.com