‘Why should we let them in?’ ‘Why should I care?’ I found myself asking these questions during my recent stay at home. It was in response to my grandfather’s stark criticism of the recent furthering of restrictions on immigration to Canada. He is aware of the struggles of entering Canada, having experienced them first hand, and having helped others enter the country after him.
The very fact I was asking myself these questions ashamed me. I saw myself as an activist of sorts, a member of the educated youth helping those in need. However, in asking these questions, I found that my answers drew from reasons very similar to my grandfather’s, and likely the reasons of thousands of Canadians before us. I work to help others in need because I, and I believe many others too, have realized how empty a room can feel when we lock the doors behind us.
When I see the photo of the Sikhs on the decks of the Komagata Maru, I think of the ones trying so desperately to pry that door open on land. The ones who raised money that they did not have for legal fees, and who rowed out to feed the men aboard with food they scarcely earned. Their story, and reasons for helping those barred from entry is as old as our nation itself.
Canada began as the entry of individuals from abroad into the homes of those already here, and continued as others followed, joining this new home they were creating. Whether French, British, Scottish, Ukrainian, or Punjabi settlers, fundamental to their journey has been the bringing, and bettering of others, left behind. A home can be shed, as these settlers did when they embarked for Canada. However, a family, friends, a language, and culture cannot. These things left behind, especially others in similar situations, remained in the minds of these settlers until they could be re-united in Canada.
During the past half-century Canada has focused on exporting the life it enjoys at home. Canadians were seen as ‘helper-fixers’ after the Suez Crisis, and are recognized as providers of aid whenever calamity strikes. When my family came to Canada in 1973, it was a far easier journey than the journey for those that came in 1914. However, this is not to suggest that their journey was easy – it too was filled with burdens and barriers. That half-century may appear to some as hypocrisy, with Canada exporting a quality of life that Canadians themselves were restricting others from enjoying. However, this would ignore the work of thousands of people, especially those within minority communities who work to bring immigrants into the home of Canada.
The Canadian Sikhs in 1914, looking out at the Komagata Maru, knew the value and necessity of having others with whom to enjoy their lives. Their languages would perish unless others came into their homes to speak them. Their food would go unshared unless they had guests, and their lives would be unfulfilled unless they made due of their promises to those they left behind. They continued to embody the spirit of the first Canadian settlers who sought a better life not only for themselves, but also for those to come after them. These settlers did not build great cities because they expected to live in them alone.
This returns me to the questions I asked myself during my visit home. My reasons are not as much about language or a family left behind. Instead, I value the diversity that makes my home beautiful, and I understand the threat to that beauty that a locked door can be.
Canada can only remain the home we know it to be if we continue to welcome others as those before us hoped to be welcomed. While the barriers of racism and intolerance that kept the passengers of the Komagata Maru from British Columbia are no longer as prominent, barriers continue to exist.
Today, when we speak of restrictions and locks on our nations doors, we speak of job scarcity and health care costs. However, our job is to overcome these barriers and remember just how lonely a room can get when we stop letting others in.
Aarondeep Singh Bains is British Columbia native completing a JD at Queen’s University and an LLM at Jean Moulin III in Lyon.