Komagata Maru: Speaking Truth to Power / by Raj Sharma

Having been born in Canada, with my parents arriving in the early 70's, I was (at times painfully) aware that I was a minority but didn't always see the relevance of events that occurred so many years prior to my birth. Aside from isolated incidents of ignorance growing up, I had no personal experience of systemic or institutional racism. What had transpired in 1914, when Canada denied entry to over 300 Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus while welcoming over hundreds of thousands immigrants from Europe per year was consigned, as far as my teenage mind was concerned, to the past.

Now, as an immigration lawyer, entrusted with the aspirations of those that seek to enter and remain in this country, I have come to appreciate the full significance of the Komagata Maru incident. The treatment of those 376 unwanted Indians was no outlier; it was just another link in a chain of exclusion stretching back to the first arrival of the Europeans and the displacement of the First Nations. The Chinese Head Tax, discouraging Chinese labourers from settling here or bringing their wives and children here predated the Komagata Maru incident. Twenty eight years after the ship was escorted back to India, Jewish passengers on the MS St Louis fleeing racism and seeking a better life were also denied entry and returned to anti-Semitic Europe.

However, the Komagata Maru incident is more than an archetype or a recurring theme of xenophobia that began with the founding of this country. It is more than an incident of blatant discrimination against undesirable migrants, it was a public attempt by Gurdit Singh Sandhu and a colonized people to challenge exclusionary laws and policies and it is their failed effort that now informs the identity of Canadians irrespective of ethnic background. The passengers of the Komagata Maru and their supporters may have lost their legal battle a century ago, but have been vindicated by history.

 Gurdit Singh Sandhu (man in the left foreground, wearing a white turban) and passengers on board the Komagata Maru. 

Gurdit Singh Sandhu (man in the left foreground, wearing a white turban) and passengers on board the Komagata Maru. 

Wrecked in Japan in 1926, the Komagata Maru lives on in memory and immigration policy. The passengers on that aborted voyage were prevented from landing because of exclusionary laws that targeted their country of origin - an arbitrary, perverse and capricious distinction. But even in this century, government policy discriminates against migrants based on their country of origin. The recent changes to Canada's refugee laws means that some claimants are denied work permits, health care and other benefits prior to a determination on the merits of their refugee claim. These restrictions are based on the country of origin. That means a Roma family from Hungary is denied all of the above while a Roma family from Romania is not. But both could end up getting status in Canada.

The changes to law and policy also entail differential treatment of refugee claimants based on mode of arrival, another arbitrary distinction. The arrival of two migrant ships and over 500 Tamil asylum seekers off the coast of British Columbia three years ago allowed the then Ministers of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness and Citizenship and Immigration both a photo opportunity and an opening to shift the direction of immigration policy to the right. "Irregular arrival" now allows the government to detain refugee claimants - even children - until their refugee claims are adjudicated. Should refugee claimants arrive individually or in groups via a commercial flight, detention and other punitive measures aren't in the cards. Because of the resistance and sacrifice of the Komagata Maru passengers and others since, Canada is a Rule of Law nation and thus, today, refugee claimants in this century affected by the mean spirited and short sighted actions of the executive can resist and have hope in setting aside the law through recourse to the highest court in the country.

We're all in this ship called Canada together. The treatment of the Komagata Maru migrants was justified in courts by referencing the (mis)treatment of First Nations in Canada. Author Ali Kazimi writes that "the colonization of Canada and the subjugation of its aboriginal inhabitants was presented as a legitimate precedent for denying South Asians their rights". There are only migrants and First Nations in this country; we have learn not just to live together but to listen to each other and ultimately understand that our fates are intertwined.  In 1908, the future Prime Minister of Canada, Mackenzie King wrote that "Canada must remain a white man's country...on moral and political grounds". King's sentiment is deposited in the ash heap of history and that is a lesson that politicians in this day and age that play to the gallery, stoking anti-immigrant and employ intransigence towards the grievances of the First Nations, should take to heart.  

It would be a disservice to characterize what happened in 1914 as merely an unfortunate incident of racism. A century ago, 376 indomitable souls and their supporters challenged arbitrary law. They raised funds, they hired legal counsel and addressed adverse public opinion. That spirit of speaking truth to power informs my identity today, not their shameful treatment by the public and early 20th century politicians pandering to the base nature of their constituents. Canadian values of fair dealing and generosity to migrants were given life by the struggles of those on the ill-fated Komagata Maru, their supporters and their ideological descendents. The lessons of the Komagata Maru incident are not just confined to the oppression of the hopes and aspirations of migrants and the specious use of the law. What I have taken to heart from 1914, and what forms part of my identity today as a Canadian, is that the passengers and their supporters undertook a public challenge to Canada's unfair and exclusionary policies targeting their country of origin. They threw down this challenge the day that Gurdit Singh chartered the Komagata Maru and continued their challenge in the courts of this country. Their efforts to resist those policies both in courts of law as well as the court of public opinion is true advocacy and inspiration to all those that seek limits on the unrestrained power of the executive.

Raj Sharma is the managing partner at Stewart Sharma Harsanyi, one of Canada's largest dedicated immigration law firms located in Calgary, Alberta. He graduated with his JD from the Faculty of Law, University of Alberta and received his LLM in Administrative Law from Osgoode Hall.