The reverberating effects of racism – 110 years since the Komagata Maru incident

Systemic racism continues to affect Canadian society in many challenging ways, resulting in policies and outcomes which reaffirm social, economic, political and cultural inequality. So as Canadian people and institutions look to combat bigotry and encourage interconnectedness, decade-over-decade, it can be worth looking into and remembering the past in order to understand how Canada’s political and governmental history can continue to reverberate into the present.

As such, it is worth reflecting on an event which took place just over 110 years ago this month, a manifestation of one of Canada’s most distinctive, discriminatory policies against Asian immigrants: the forced return of the SS Komagata Maru after its arrival at Vancouver on May 23, 1914.

A history of anti-Asian immigrant policies

Prior to the departure of the Komagata Maru in 1914, Canada had been increasingly implementing and enforcing numerous anti-Asian immigration policies, in no small part due to intense lobbying by anti-Asian groups. Some of these policies, like the Chinese head tax, specifically carved out policies directed against certain groups. But other policies and laws limited South Asian arrivals by function and by design but without explicit mention of specific nationalities, making such laws harder to challenge.

Sikhs on board the SS Komagata Maru, in English Bay, 1914 | Photo courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.

One such policy that had limited immigration from India was the right of immigration officers to turn away any Asian arrivals with less than $200. But the majority of the 376 passengers aboard the Komagata Maru – particularly among its 337 Sikh passengers – were relatively wealthy and land-owning men.

Instead, it was the enforcement of another rule that would serve as the justification for the eventual refusal of port for the ship: the continuous journey regulation. This policy allowed immigration officers to deny entry to anyone other than those arriving by a single, continuous journey from their native country, arbitrarily limiting travel from India, whose voyages often required a stop to resupply along Asia’s east coast.

That enforcement had even been overruled in a court case dealing with Sikh immigrants who arrived from Japan just a few months prior to the Komagata Maru’s departure. But the Canadian government quickly re-wrote and re-implemented the legislation to abide by that court case’s objections, shortly before that very ship – which would eventually stop over in Yokohama, Japan prior to its arrival in Vancouver – set sail.

May 23, 1914

Gurdit Singh Sirhali, the chief spokesperson for the passengers who hired the Komagata Maru to set sail to begin with, expected pushback to some degree when the ship entered Vancouver’s harbours. But he and other passengers were not prepared for the uncompromising measures that would be taken by the Canadian authorities.

Only 20 returning residents and a few particularly special case individuals were allowed ashore whatsoever. The remaining majority were not only denied entry, but also suffered through a lengthy battle with immigration authorities, including attempts to block any communications with the outside world, and a refusal to resupply the ship with food and water except in most desperate circumstances.

A subsequent legal battle proved fruitless, and without the resources to fight an appeal process, the Komagata Maru was forced to depart from Vancouver just two months later on July 23. After this radicalizing incident, tensions broke loose when the ship eventually docked at the Indian port of Budge Budge near Kolkata in September of that year, and twenty passengers were killed in a dispute with British Indian police and troops who again had attempted to restrict their movement.

A challenged legacy

In part because of those restrictions, there were only around 6,800 South Asians counted in the Canadian census as late as 1961. As a result, it was only decades later, as the number of Punjabi and Sikh people began growing in Canada and British Columbia, that this story became more widely known and discussed in this country.

In particular, as B.C. grew to become the largest diaspora home for Sikhs in the world, British Columbian Sikhs pushed for formal apologies from responsible levels of government for the event. They would eventually receive them from provincial, federal, and municipal levels of government, with the City of Vancouver naming May 23 a day of remembrance for the incident in 2021.

But the impacts of racism continue to be felt, and some remain concerned about whether Canada is doing enough to protect new South Asian immigrants from things like extortion, and to prevent South Asian racism in general. For now, it is worth understanding the history behind the ongoing problems that Canada, its organizations and its people aim to address.

Source: The Canadian Encyclopedia

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