Reflecting on the 100th Anniversary of the Komagata Maru Episode / by The Honourable Russell G. Juriansz

I never learned about the Komagata Maru in school. I was already a lawyer when I heard about it, and the incident ignited my imagination, as you will realize as you read on. Perhaps this is because I too came to Canada by ship. I arrived in April 1955 and not by continuous passage. We took one ship from Mumbai, then Bombay, to Southampton and another from there to Quebec City. At the time, Canada restricted immigration from India. It had a quota of 150 independent immigrants from India annually.

When I learned of the Komagata Maru, I dug out newspapers and old law reports from library archives. This was before legal research was computerized. It brought home for me Canada’s lengthy history of legislated discrimination and prejudices that prevailed for much of the twentieth century.

The migrants on board that ship launched a test case in the immigration review system. That test case concerned Munshi Singh (son of Wazair Singh), of Gulupore, Hoshiarpur District, Punjab. The Komagata Maru sat in Vancouver harbour while his case proceeded through an immigration board of inquiry, the British Columbia Supreme Court, and the British Colombia Court of Appeal. A five judge panel of the Court of Appeal unanimously dismissed Singh’s appeal on July 6, 1914.

The Japanese captain was ordered to sail, but the Indians took over the ship and refused to budge. On July 19, 1914, 125 Vancouver policemen, and 35 special immigration agents attempted to board the ship and were beaten off, some 30 of them sustaining injury. Finally on July 23, two months after its arrival, the Komagata Maru was escorted out to sea under the guns of the S.S. Rainbow, one of Canada’s first naval cruisers.

Below I quote several newspapers of the day. Readers may be jolted by the terms they use to describe minorities. The newspapers’ language can be taken to reveal common usage of the day. After the Komagata Maru was forced out to sea the Ottawa Citizen editorial said:

Sending a tug laden with police and armed gunmen to deal with the Hindus is surely the limit of comic opera government… It is hoped that … someone responsible for the government of Canada has taken action to stop buffoon campaigns against the Hindus… The shipload at Vancouver were not sent there to become targets for hilarious hose players.

To use the little British-Canadian cruiser against British Indian subjects would seem to be the height of inconsistent Imperialism. 

Komagata Maru Ship Close Up.jpeg

Three Regulations Not One

The Komagata Maru is generally associated with the continuous passage ordinance, which required immigrants to arrive in Canada a continuous journey. In fact, though, the would-be immigrants were excluded from Canada on the basis of three different regulations. The other two are interesting in their own right.

There was "P.C. 24”, enacted in 1908.  Made under the authority of section 37 of The Immigration Act, it provided that “no immigrant of any Asiatic race shall be permitted to land in Canada unless such immigrant possess in his own right money to the amount of at least two hundred dollars.”

The reason this regulation was passed is more than interesting. Beginning with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1885, Canada had already imposed a head tax on Chinese immigrants. The Chinese head tax was first imposed in the amount of $50. The 1908 regulation not only increased the amount of the head tax but used the term “Asiatics” to ensure that it applied to Japanese as well. The 1908 regulation was prompted by the Vancouver race riot of September 7, 1907, which makes the recent Stanley Cup turmoil in Vancouver look like a mere skirmish. The race riot, and reaction to it, show the state of racial relations in Vancouver during this period.

The Race Riot of 1907

By 1907, there were sizeable Chinese and Japanese communities in Vancouver. On September 7, 1907 a mob, estimated at some 30,000 (by the Vancouver Daily Province) led by the Asiatic Exclusion League, attacked Chinatown beating its inhabitants and wrecking and plundering stores, with little or no resistance. The mob continued on to “Little Tokyo” but the Japanese defended themselves. The riot took place on a Saturday night. The Monday edition of the Vancouver Daily Province of September 9, 1907 reported:

By nine o’clock in the evening the thousands of people who could not gain admission to the City Hall where the big anti-Asiatic mass meeting was being held, began to search for diversion elsewhere, and it was this crowd, disappointed in not gaining entrance to the overflowing hall, which split into small sections, some of which eventually consolidated into the property smashing mob.

Thirty thousand people thronged the streets in the vicinity of the zone of disturbance, for there was an indefinable something in the air which carried a message of trouble impending.

When the mob entered Chinatown “[b]ricks and stones started to fly in every direction, and the noise of shattered glass falling into stores and to pavement answered the vollies [sic] of the mob. Chinese took to their heels, running into stores and barricading doors as rapidly as possible while the tumult lasted.”

Soon “the mob headed in the direction of Japtown. … [B]y ten o’clock in the evening practically every policeman on duty in Vancouver was in guard either in Chinatown or Japtown.”

The mob smashed windows and hurled stones and bricks into stores. The police could not stop the crowd. The report continued:

The crash of glass was continual. Window after window was shattered in other stores and boarding houses in the vicinity as the riotous gang pushed further into the thoroughfare lined with nests of Japanese.


Finally the Japanese fought back:

Armed with sticks, clubs, iron bars, revolvers, knives and broken glass, the enraged aliens poured forth into the streets. Hundreds of little brown men rushed the attacking force, their most effective weapons being the knives and bottles, the latter being broken off at the neck, which was held in the hands of the Jap fighter. The broken edges of glass clustering around the necks of the bottles made the weapon very formidable and many a white man was badly gashed about the arms, neck and face…

Armed only with stones, the mob could not stand before the onslaught of knives and broken bottles propelled by the Japanese while they made the air ring with ‘Banzais’. Many of the Japanese went to the ground as stones thumped against their heads, but the insensible ones were carried off by their friends, and the fight kept up till the mob wavered, broke and finally retreated.

The newspaper’s editorial provides insight of the attitude of the establishment. The editorial described the “mob of roughs” who “occupied the oriental quarters” and “terrorized the Chinese and the Japanese” as a “disorderly element”, which, “though as a rule quiescent, is ready to break out on occasion into lawless acts”. The editorial called on the police and mayor to demonstrate that “we are prepared to deal with this element; that we simply will not have lawlessness on any account whatever”.

However, the editorial continued:

With regard to the demonstration against Asiatic immigration that came to such unfortunate a finish, it may be said that it was conducted by an organization with the objects of which most British Columbians agree, and for the attainment of the aims of which the B.C. local government has again and again vigorously striven. We are all of the opinion that this province must be a white man’s country. We hold it in trust to preserve it for our race. We do not wish to look forward to a day when our descendants will be dominated by Japanese or Chinese or any colour but their own. We are, as has been well said, an outpost of the empire, and that outpost we have to hold against all comers.

Prime Minister Laurier sent the Deputy Labour Minister to Vancouver to investigate. On the basis of the Deputy Minister’s report, the Chinese and Japanese were awarded compensation. The same Deputy Minister travelled to Britain only a few months later to consult on the issue of “Immigration to Canada from the Orient and Immigration from India in Particular”. He stated in his May 1908 Report:

That Canada should desire to restrict immigration from the Orient is regarded as natural, that Canada should remain a white man’s country is believed to be not only desirable for economic and social reasons but highly necessary on political and national grounds.

It is interesting to compare the Deputy Minister’s comment to what Prime Minister Mackenzie King said in the House of Commons some forty years later on May 1, 1947:

There will, I am sure, be general agreement with the view that the people of Canada do not wish, as a result of mass immigration, to make a fundamental alteration in the character of our population. Large-scale immigration from the orient would change the fundamental composition of the Canadian population. Any considerable oriental immigration would, moreover, be certain to give rise to social and economic problems of a character that might lead to serious difficulties in the field of international relations. The government, therefore, has no thought of making change in immigration regulations which would have consequences of the kind.

The similarity in the two statements is easily explained. The Deputy Labour Minister who investigated and reported on the Vancouver race riot was the young Mackenzie King. His 1947 statement in the House of Commons reflected official Canadian immigration policy until 1962.

The Third Regulation

The other regulation that made the Komagata Maru’s passengers inadmissible is puzzling on a first reading because of its specificity and time-limited application. It prohibited the landing of any prospective immigrants, artisans, or skilled or unskilled labourers at specified ports in British Columbia between March 31 and September 30, 1914.

The answer to the puzzle is the British Empire. The British governed India and Hong Kong and still had a close paternal relationship with Canada. The Komagata Maru would have arrived in Vancouver in March, but Gurdit Singh Sandhu, who had chartered the ship, was detained by the governor in Hong Kong for some months. I have not been able to ascertain on what basis he was detained, but in any event, Canada knew the Komagata Maru was coming and enacted this regulation in anticipation of its arrival.

Komagata Maru Passengers Crammed On Board.jpeg

The Test Case Decision

It was in this atmosphere that the British Columbia Court of Appeal heard Munshi Singh’s case. The arguments advanced in the court and the court’s reasons for rejecting them are not easily reviewed in a short non-technical reflection like this. The task is not made easier because all five judges (Chief Justice Macdonald and Justices Irving, Martin, Galliher, and McPhillips) wrote separate reasons. I can only touch on some highlights, which show how: the Komagata Maru made a small contribution to Canada’s evolution to full independence and sovereignty; the Charter of Rights and Freedoms made a significant change in the relationship between legislatures and the courts; and Canada’s expressly discriminatory immigration policies prevailed through much of the twentieth century.

First, the proposition that the Komagata Maru made a small contribution to Canada’s evolution to full independence and sovereignty. It must be remembered that while Canadians mark their independence from the passage of the British North America Act in 1867, Canada was not fully sovereign until the Imperial Parliament passed the Statute of Westminster in 1931. Prior to that time, the Canadian parliaments (federal and provincial) could not pass laws inconsistent with Imperial legislation, nor repeal or amend Imperial law in force within their jurisdictions. Further, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council remained the final court of appeal in Canada’s judicial system for civil matters until 1949 – criminal appeals to London ended shortly after the passage of the Statute.

The main argument of the people on the Komagata Maru was that they could not be deported because they were British subjects, and Parliament lacked the power to authorize the detention and deportation of a British subject. The court held that Canada did have such power. Justice Irving put it this way: “and it seems to me plain beyond question that Canada has a right also to make laws for the exclusion and expulsion from Canada of British subjects whether of Asiatic race or of European race, irrespective of whether they come from Calcutta or London”. Munshi Singh’s case established that the British North America Act vested in the Parliament of Canada complete sovereignty over immigration into Canada, including the “right to exclude British subjects, not even excepting those born in the United Kingdom”.

The court also rejected the argument that the regulation imposing a head tax on “Asiatics” did not apply to British subjects. Justice McPhillips said:

Therefore, it may well be said that when the words ‘Asiatic race’ are used in the order in council, P.C. 24, the words are, in their meaning, comprehensive and precise enough to cover the Hindu race, of which the appellant is one.


He was not content to leave it at that. He went on:

It is plain that upon study of the question, the Hindu race, as well as the Asiatic race in general, are, in their conception of life and ideas of society, fundamentally different to the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic races, and European races in general.


Making comments that went well beyond legal analysis he opined that “the better classes of the Asiatic races are not given to leave their own countries” because they are “greatly attached to their homes”. On the other hand:

…those who become immigrants are, without disparagement to them, undesirables in Canada, where a very different civilization exists. The laws of this country are unsuited to them, and their ways and ideas may well be a menace to the well-being of the Canadian people.


Not content to find Parliament had the power to enact the regulations, Justice McPhillips commented that Parliament:

…may be well said to be safeguarding the people of Canada from an influx which it is no chimera to conjure up might annihilate the nation and change its whole potential complexity, introduce Oriental ways as against European ways, eastern civilization for western civilization, and all the dire results that would naturally flow therefrom.


Other judges were more circumspect. They reasoned that they could not consider the policy behind the regulations. For example, Justice Martin quoted from an earlier decision of the Privy Council to the following effect:

A Court of law has nothing to do with a Canadian Act of Parliament, lawfully passed, except to give it effect according to its tenor. ... It cannot be too strongly put that with the wisdom or expediency or policy of an Act, lawfully passed, no Court has a word to say.


The regulations were well within the authority bestowed by the Immigration Act. The Act expressly allowed the making of regulations prohibiting “immigrants belonging to any race deemed unsuited to the climate or requirements of Canada”.

Justice Martin’s comments illustrate the second proposition; the Charter has changed the legal terrain. The Charter empowers and obligates courts to strike down discriminatory laws in a way that was impossible prior to its adoption.

Third, the Komagata Maru was emblematic of Canada’s restrictive immigration policy that endured into relatively modern times.

Discriminatory Immigration Policy in Modern Times

I mentioned at the outset that I immigrated to Canada when the quota system was in place for those coming from India. That system remained (with an increase from 150 to 300 in 1958) until 1962, when the government introduced a ‘points system’ for independent immigrants. The 1962 regulations continued to prefer family-sponsored immigrants from Europe and the Americas, and left significant administrative discretion in the determination of the suitability of independent immigrants. It was not until the 1976 Immigration Act came into force in 1978, that Canada for the first time formally adopted non-discrimination as a principle of its immigration policy. This seems to me to be quite recent. It is well after I graduated from Osgoode Hall Law School in 1972.

Immigration is not the only example in which express legislative discrimination endured into relatively modern times. In another notorious example, up to 1948, the federal government let provinces dictate the eligibility for their citizens to vote in both federal and provincial elections on racial grounds. The Dominion Elections Act permitted disenfranchisement for “reasons of race”. The government of British Columbia excluded most people of Asian origin until 1947, when it removed the restriction on “Hindus”and Chinese voting, and 1949 when the Japanese prohibition was removed. Again this does not seem to me to be ancient history. It is discomforting to think that during my lifetime Canadians of South Asian and other origins resident in British Columbia could not vote in either provincial or federal elections.

The change in immigration law led to an influx of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent in the mid-70s. There was resistance to the change in immigration patterns and the newcomers faced undisguised prejudice during a several-year period of transition. The Task Force on Human Relations reported to Toronto’s Metro Council in 1977 that South Asians in Toronto felt “unsafe, prone to attack at any time, in any location and not particularly protected by the laws of the state.” It continued: “The violence is not concentrated in a particular section of the community, and occurs in all levels within East Indian life.”

The Komagata Maru’s Conclusion

The Komagata Maru saga did not end with its forced exodus from Vancouver harbour. It was met by a British gunboat on its return to India as it approached Budge Budge, the port in Calcutta. The colonial government suspected that some people on the ship were Ghadarites, who sought to oust the British from India. The authorities tried to arrest them. In the ensuing melee, 19 of the passengers were killed.

While the treatment of the Komagata Maru did much to inflame anti-British sentiment in India, over one million Indians served for Britain in the First World War, including approximately 140,000 who fought on the Western Front. Undoubtedly, Indians expected to be rewarded with self-government after the war. After the war Britain’s refusal to take any concrete steps in that direction fueled the independence movement, which Gandhi again suspended during the Second World War. I was born in British India.

A point in time must surely come when a past injustice, while remaining colourful history, ceases to shed much meaningful light on the nature of the world we live in today. However, the Komagata Maru incident, on its hundredth anniversary, continues to be relevant for a number of reasons I have tried to explain. It is emblematic of Canada’s restrictive immigration policy that endured into relatively modern times. The restrictive immigration policy still explains the distribution of South Asians within Canadian society and their underrepresentation at senior levels of, for example, the legal profession and judiciary. The court decision upholding the deportation of the would-be immigrants on the Komagata illustrates important aspects of Canada’s development toward complete independence, the relationship between legislatures and courts, and the importance of the Charter.

The Komagata Maru is part of the rich and colourful history that minority communities contribute to Canada. SALSA is commended for creating this website to better acquaint Canadians with that history. 

The Honourable Russell G. Juriansz is a judge of the Ontario Court of Appeal.