Social Justice in Pre-War Canada: Edward Bird and the Komagatu Maru / by Ranjan Agrawal

In 1973, our father landed at Vancouver International Airport, 12,000 kilometers from home, a 25-year old Indian immigrant with few job skills and no Canadian experience. Four years later, our mother followed that same route, joining a man she had only met four times before (a courage that amazes us to this day).

In this land, they built their life: moving from small town to small town throughout British Columbia and Alberta, scratching out a living, before settling in Edmonton, where they raised us. Thirty years later, we made our own, albeit more modest, pilgrimage, traveling to Toronto to study, work and eventually raise families of our own. We are proud Canadians, and proud to be fathers of a new generation of the North.

As Canadian immigrants, our parents shared a desire common to many new Canadians: we should become professionals. It didn’t matter much whether we were doctors, accountants or engineers. But to us there was no choice: we would be advocates. As argumentative Indians raised on a steady diet of stories about Birbal the Wise, the Mahatma and Pundit Nehru, studying the law would be both a tool to achieve our parents’ ambitions and to connect with our history.

Growing up, we had heard the story of the Komagata Maru in bits and pieces, never really digesting its meaning or its impact. Today, having read and re-read the narrative, it is the role of Joseph Edward Bird that stays with us the most. Bird represented the passengers of the Komagatu Maru, including Munshi Singh in the Court of Appeal for British Columbia. Though we don’t know for sure, he was surly a proponent of the “cab-rank” rule. In pre-war Canada, it must have been rare for a gentrified city barrister to accept a retainer from “others”, least of all others trapped on a foreign ship off-shore. But Bird accepted that brief and his story is intertwined with that of the Komagatu Maru.

South Asian migrants in the early 1900s loading possessions onto horse drawn wagons at the Canadian Pacific Railway Pier in Vancouver. 

South Asian migrants in the early 1900s loading possessions onto horse drawn wagons at the Canadian Pacific Railway Pier in Vancouver. 

Though Bird was ultimately unsuccessful in the Court of Appeal, his advocacy would not have gone unnoticed in Vancouver and across British Columbia. Indeed, he is best known for the Komagata Maru case but it was an earlier victory that may have been more important — the striking down of the earliest iteration of the Continious Journey Regulation in the Panama Maru incident. In 1913, South Asian migrants on the Panama Maru arrived in Victoria but were prohibited from entering Canada. Bird successfully challenged the law, allowing the ship’s 39 passengers to land. We don’t believe it’s an understatement to trace his defence in these cases to the enfranchisement of Indo-Canadians in 1947 and, in a small way, the arrival of our parents, with open arms, in the same city that turned away the Komagatu passengers.

We are sure that justice today looks far different than it did from Bird’s office atop the Metropolitan Building in Vancouver. But the challenges faced by new Canadians are not that different. Despite our better history, there is a still an ongoing struggle in our country for equality, fairness and basic human dignity. We have been fortunate to have the trust of clients and our colleagues in advancing some of these same causes in pro bono litigation across Canada, though we will be the first to acknowledge that this struggle will continue.

We don’t pretend to be half the advocate that Bird was. But in our way, we hope that our time in this profession lets us walk a short way in his shoes to advance the cause of access to justice and the rule of law.

Ranjan Agarwal is a partner in the litigation department at Bennett Jones LLP. Rahool Agarwal is a litigator at Norton Rose Fulbright LLP. Ranjan and Rahool have acted as counsel in 10 constitutional appeals in the Supreme Court of Canada. Their mother is very proud of them.