Rupinder Kaur

Remembering the Komagata Maru by Rupinder Kaur

They say, ‘history is written by those who won.’

But when a story like the Komagata Maru was told – it was not from the perspective of the 340 passengers on that ship – it was from the perspective of the Canadians’ who felt entitled to accept or reject those they deemed suitable and desirable to enter Canada.

To put the entire story into context, it’s important to remember that this incident took place in 1914, when Canada was not a country we would recognize today. Concepts of diversity and multiculturalism didn’t exist. What did exist were racist policies like the Chinese Head Tax and the Continuous Journey Regulation. Both were deliberate forms of preventing non-Whites from entering the country through unfair, financial duties or discriminating, restrictive policies.

It should be noted that both the Chinese Head Tax and Continuous Journey policy were introduced and implemented by federal Conservative governments under Sir John A. Macdonald and later Sir Robert Borden.

Now, 100 years ago, we can mark the historical significance of the Komagata Maru – not just the symbol of a ship, carrying British subjects from colonial India to Canada (both countries were considered British colonies!) – but the fact that even today’s Conservative Prime Minister pays lip service to the current irrationality of denying people the opportunity to make a better life in Canada, just as his ancestors had the opportunity to.

The reality is that Canada has matured. Today’s population and politicians have realized that racism is not acceptable and have made strides to raise awareness and ensure those mistakes are never made again.

That is why I am proud of my mentor and friend, Jack Layton. In 2006, the federal leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada personally took up this issue. He spoke to Canadians about how unfair the Continuous Journey law was and how important an apology was needed to not only acknowledge and recognize the wrong but to right the wrong. He reminded us that justice delayed is justice denied. So he joined Canadian-Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims of South Asian-descent, and demanded the federal government make a formal apology on the floor of the House of Commons.

Eventually, our Prime Minister did apologize.

In a park.

During an annual festival.

In Surrey, British Columbia.

In 2008.

Following Mr. Harper's speech, Sikh community leaders asked the 8,000+ people in attendance to indicate if they accepted the apology by a show of hands. Through a clear and overwhelming majority, the community refused to accept the apology in the park and demanded it to be repeated inside the House of Commons, on the floor of our parliament where the original laws preventing the passengers to disembark on Canadian soil were introduced and passed.

However, today we’re seeing Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives continue to place barriers and obstacles in allowing people to immigrate to Canada, to sponsor a spouse, to reunite families or to ease visitation and travel restrictions. Some see it as another type of barrier, choosing who is acceptable to come into Canada, and illogically rejecting those who don’t fit their arbitrary criteria.

It’s important to continue fighting for fairness, justice and equality. When a wrong is committed against one person or one community, as Canadians, we have an obligation to stand up and speak out together. 

Rupinder Kaur is the former federal NDP press secretary and former Chief of Staff for Alberta’s NDP.