100 Years Since the Komagata Maru: Why Does it Matter? / by Avnish Nanda

There is no founding story in Canada. There is no grand narrative that connects our past and present, definitively informing who we are as a people.

Instead, we have founding stories. Stories that capture our disparate identities and unique histories as Canadians. From the multitude of First Nations' creation stories to French colonization of the St. Lawrence and Maritimes to the British conquest on the Plains of Abraham. These stories are not limited to Canada's founding communities. They include the experiences of other Canadians: Irish migrants in Atlantic Canada and Quebec, Ukrainian settlers on the Prairies, Chinese miners and railway labourers in British Columbia, and many more. These stories only grow, as Canada continues to be a new beginning for people from around the world.

Growing up as South Asian Canadians, we felt as if our founding story was missing. We never learned about the South Asian experience in Canada while attending primary or secondary school. Our parents, both Indian immigrants from Punjab who arrived in Canada during the 1970s, were either indifferent or likely preoccupied with more important things than existential identity questions about what it means to be Canadian.

Frankly, having a founding story to help us understand our place in Canada didn’t really matter. We were more than willing to piece it together from other sources. In fact, we gravitated towards anything that could help provide insight into our lives as other Canadians. Whether that was through the experiences of Japanese Canadians interned during the Second World War or Mordecai Richler writing about the first generation Jewish Canadians living in Montreal.

Moreover, if they weren’t teaching us about the South Asian Canadian experience in school, we thought it was because it's still in its early stages. This made it our responsibility to create a legacy that could help future South Asian Canadians answer the questions that lingered in our minds.

Discovering the Komagata Maru Episode changed things. The episode is more than a story of a boat full of South Asian migrants attempting to defy Canada’s racist migratory policies. It portrays a less welcoming Canada, where Chinese, Japanese and South Asians in Canada were systematically deprived of their civil and political rights over the threat they posed to Canada’s racial purity. Rather than accept their fate, South Asians in Canada, which included a large number of revolutionaries and political agitators against British Colonial rule in India, openly resisted their subjugation. They fought back with the means they had available, often violently. They were determined to remain in Canada, and participate in economic, social and political life on an equal footing with white Canadians.

Two Sikh men walk among crowds on Granville Street, Vancouver in 1907. 

The Komagata Maru Episode reveals that the South Asian experience in Canada originated out of isolation, exclusion and hostility. Yet despite the odds, the community grew and prospered, charting its own path in its refusal to be defined by others. Together with other cultural communities who also experienced discrimination and white Canadians who rejected the era’s prevailing racial prejudices, they created the Canada we live in today. A society that is tolerant and pluralistic, where everyone belongs, and no one group holds a monopoly over what it means to be Canadian.

The greatest thing about Canada is the absence of a grand narrative defining who we are as Canadians. With competing narratives, we find ourselves in a constant dialogue on what it means to be a Canadian. While themes can be identified across experiences, there is no definitive concept of Canadian identity. Unlike other places, Canadian identity is not formulated in exclusionary terms. We are all Canadians, and Canadians equally, regardless of our appearances, faiths (or lack thereof), languages and other identity markers.

To be Canadian is certainly more than one’s citizenship. However, at the same time, the absence of a rigid identity framework accommodates considerable diversity. As Canadians, we can draw from the various founding stories embedded in our identity to  help us inform where we come from, where we stand and where we are headed.

The Komagata Maru Episode represents the context in which we, as South Asian Canadians, have developed as a community. It embodies the determination of early South Asian migrants to Canada, whose sacrifice created the conditions for us to thrive. However, it is more than a South Asian Canadian story. It is a story that all Canadians, regardless of background, can use to inform their identity and understand who we are as a collective.

Avnish Nanda and Sheena Josan are third year law students at Osgoode Hall Law School and co-chairs of Komagata Maru Week