A century ago on May 23rd in 1914, the Komagata Maru, a ship of migrants from India sailed into the western shores of what is now called British Columbia, Canada, in the traditional territories of the Coast Salish groups of First Nations Peoples. Upon the Komagata Maru’s arrival to Canadian shores, immigration and security officials intercepted the vessel and the 375 passengers on board were prohibited from disembarking. For months the passengers remained detained on board the ship, with dwindling supplies, while Canadian immigration officials plotted means to remove them from Canada for violating the continuous journey provision of the Immigration Act. The continuous journey provision, drafted with the specific intention to prevent “undesirable” migrants from India, required that all immigrants must come to Canada by a continuous journey from their country of birth or citizenship, an impossible feat from India.
The passengers of the Komagata Maru, led by Gurdit Singh, launched a legal challenge to be allowed to remain in Canada arguing that the continuous journey provisions were discriminatory. The case was heard by the British Colombia Court of Appeal, which ruled that the passengers aboard were inadmissible to Canada for violating the continuous journey regulation. This was the first instance in Canadian history where a boat of migrants was explicitly rejected from Canada’s shores. Decades later Canada would repeat this failure to uphold humanitarian ideals when it refused to allow the S.S. St. Louis, a ship of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution in Germany, to dock in Canadian shores.
The Komagata Maru is exemplary of Canada’s history of racism and exclusion in its social, political and legal institutions. In his reasoning, Justice McPhillips one of the three judges to hear the case, stated that it is “[b]etter that peoples of non-assimilative – and by nature properly non-assimilative – race should not come to Canada, but rather, that they should remain residence in their country of origin and there do their share, as they have in the past, in the preservation and development of the Empire.” Justice McPhillips attitude towards non-white migration was reflective of many white Canadians at the time, including both working class and organized labour movements as well as the capitalist classes.
Weeks after the court’s decision, the Komagata Maru, and its defeated passengers, were escorted out of Canada by a military warship. Two months later, when the Komagata Maru reached colonial British India, the ship was intercepted and police opened fire on the passengers as they disembarked in Budge Budge. Twenty-two people were massacred. The continuous journey provision remained a fixture in Canadian immigration law until1948 when it was removed by a government led by Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, who ironically drafted the regulations in the first instance.
The Komagata Maru tragedy was not the first, nor was it the last, instance of exclusionary laws that targeted racialized migrants. The Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion laws, the internment of thousands of Japanese Canadians during World War II, and turning away the SS St. Louis, indicate that Canada has long and sordid history of racist migration laws designed to exclude and limit the arrival of migrants constructed to be undesirable.
Moreover, Canada’s history of racial exclusion through policies, practices and laws that continue to subjugate the First Nations peoples in Canada, as well as racialized groups, should not be overlooked or forgotten because of its present day diversity. Canada’s ethnic, racial, cultural and religious diversity is a result of resistance by those groups to legally instituted practices of exclusion and racism.
In fact, many of these exclusionary policies continue to persist in modern forms, such as the Temporary Foreign Workers Program, which creates a pool of low wage vulnerable workers who have limited avenues to achieve permanent residency or citizenship in Canada, while being separated from their families for years. The Temporary Foreign Workers Program largely exploits the labour of racialized workers by placing them in a perpetual state of temporariness, without adequate avenues for these workers to achieve permanent immigration status.
Canada has often straddled the spectrums between exclusion and inclusion in its migration policies largely shaped by economic and capital interests. Over the course of the last century this has not changed much as exemplified by the current debates and discourses around the Temporary Foreign Workers Program.
Let us not only reflect upon and actively remember our past injustices and closely examine our current practices, but also strive to ensure that vulnerable and marginalized migrants are given fair opportunities to achieve full citizenship rights.
Harini Sivalingam is a lawyer, community activist and a PhD student in Socio-Legal Studies at York University.