Debates of the Senate (Hansard)

1st Session, 41st Parliament,

Volume 148, Issue 26

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Honourable Noël A. Kinsella, Speaker

Komagata Maru Incident

Motion to Urge Government to Officially Apologize to the South Asian Community and to the Individuals Impacted in the Komagata Maru Incident—Debate Adjourned
Hon. Mobina S. B. Jaffer, pursuant to notice of June 21, 2011, moved:

That the Government of Canada officially apologize in Parliament to the South Asian community and to the individuals impacted in the 1914 Komagata Maru incident.

She said: Honourable senators, I rise today to speak to my motion urging the Government of Canada to officially apologize to the South Asian community and to the individuals impacted by the 1914 Komagata Maru incident.

May 23, 1914, was a sad day in Canadian history. May 23, 1914, was the day that the Komagata Maru, a ship carrying 376 people of South Asian descent, sailed from Japan to the shores of British Columbia. Unfortunately, after spending over one month at sea, the 12 Hindus, 24 Muslims and 340 Sikhs, all of whom were eager to start a new life in a country full of opportunity, were denied entry into Canada.

Honourable senators, the Komagata Maru incident occurred during a time in Canadian history when there was a deep-seated prejudice against minorities and immigrants, particularly those who were of South Asian descent. Unfortunately, these prejudices were supported by law.

In 1908, the Canadian government enacted the Continuous Passage Act, which required all immigrants to arrive on an uninterrupted journey from their point of origin to Canada. This created a significant barrier to immigration from Asia, as trips from most Asian countries involved stops at ports. For South Asians specifically, this Act made it impossible for them to enter Canada as immigrants, since they needed to enter the country without stopping at any point and no steamship line provided this service.

In addition to the Continuous Passage Act, legislation was also adopted stating that immigrants coming into Canada from Asia were required to have $200 in hand upon their arrival. This was a large hurdle, as most people from South Asia who were looking to immigrate to Canada were often not in a position to bring such a substantial amount of money forward.

In 1914, a South Asian man by the name of Gurdit Singh, who was well aware that many South Asians were desperate to start a new life in Canada, took matters into his own hands. While on a business trip in Hong Kong, Mr. Singh chartered a ship, which was called the Komagata Maru, and decided to have it sail to Canada.

This ship sailed from Hong Kong to Vancouver with 12 Hindus, 24 Muslims and 340 Sikhs on board. The ship sailed from Japan to Canada without stopping, which was in compliance with the Continuous Passage Act. On May 23, 1914, when the ship finally arrived on the shores of Vancouver, none of the passengers was allowed to disembark.

There was a large movement of people, which included local community groups, politicians and government bodies, who came together to ensure that all of those on board the Komagata Maru did not step on to Canadian soil. As a result of these efforts, for two long months all 376 passengers were forced to stay on board the ship.

Not only was it made clear that their presence in our country was unwelcome, but also Canadian officials denied these South Asian passengers very basic necessities, such as food and water. For 63 long days, all those on board the Komagata Maru lived in extremely confined spaces, fighting hunger and dehydration.

Fortunately, members of the local South Asian community worked together and established what was called a “shore committee.” The shore committee came together and advocated on behalf of all those who were on board. They found ways to bring food, water and other very basic necessities on board the ship. The shore committee also raised funds and engaged in legal battles and negotiations as they were determined to fight for the rights of the 376 passengers and help them start a new life in Canada.

All of those aboard the Komagata Maru waited patiently despite the fact that they were being forced to fight hunger and disease. All 376 passengers found strength in their hope that perhaps they would be granted entrance into Canada. They believed in Canada.

Unfortunately, on July 23, 1914, after spending over two months on Canadian waters, the Komagata Maru and almost all of those on board were forced to depart and return to Asia. The hopes and dreams of all those on board were crushed as their desire to start a new life in a country full of opportunity would not become a reality.

On September 27, 1914, when the Komagata Maru arrived in Calcutta, all the passengers on board were held as prisoners by British officials. Twenty passengers were killed; nine were wounded; and the others who had just spent six months in confinement on the ship were arrested and once again faced with confinement, this time in a prison cell.

Honourable senators, I am pleased to inform you that on August 3, 2008, Prime Minister Harper apologized to the South Asian community in Surrey, British Columbia, about the Komagata Maru incident. This apology was to the people of Surrey. However, the fact that this apology was not delivered in the House of Commons is not acceptable to many in the South Asian community.

Historically, the government has extended official apologies in Parliament to acknowledge injustice and wrongdoing. For example, in June of 2010, Prime Minister Harper delivered an official apology to those Aboriginal people who were victims of the Canadian residential school system. Similarly, in 2006 Prime Minister Harper delivered an official apology to Chinese Canadians who were unfairly taxed when immigrating to Canada.

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Both of these apologies recognized the pain, suffering and injustice inflicted upon these communities. Both of these apologies were delivered in a respectful manner in Parliament. The 376 passengers on board the Komagata Maru, as well as all those people who were negatively affected by the racist and discriminatory immigration policies that existed at the time, deserve no different. They, too, should be given the respect that has been extended to other groups and receive an official apology in Parliament.

Honourable senators, I, along with many parliamentarians from all parties, had the pleasure of attending the fifteenth annual Mela Gadri Babian Da festival in Vancouver, which brought together over 10,000 members of the South Asian community. At the meeting, many people said that the time had arrived for them to receive an official apology in Parliament. I promised these people that I would introduce this motion on their behalf in the Senate. To the members of the South Asian community, the Komagata Maru incident serves as a constant reminder of all the struggles and difficulties they have been confronted with.

Honourable senators, all of those who were affected by the Komagata Maru incident deserve an apology in Parliament. The Canada I know is a country that embraces multiculturalism and welcomes people from all walks of life. The Canada I know prides itself on treating all people from all races, religions and creeds with fairness, respect, dignity. Although the Komagata Maru incident happened almost a century ago, it represents a very sad time in our country’s history. I have heard from over 10,000 of my constituents in British Columbia, who have all expressed to me that they would like to be given the same respect that has been extended to other groups and receive an apology in Parliament.

Honourable senators, I stand before you and request that you give these people their dignity and that you support me in this effort to right our past wrongs. I present this motion on behalf of all members of the South Asian community as they have requested that I be their voice in Parliament. All we are asking is that the very same apology that Prime Minister Harper delivered with such sincerity in Surrey be delivered in Parliament.

The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore: It was moved by the Honourable Senator Carignan, seconded by Honourable Senator Marshall, that further debate be adjourned until the next sitting of the Senate.

Is it your pleasure, honourable senators, to adopt the motion?

Hon. Senators: Agreed.

(On motion of Senator Carignan, debate adjourned.)

 

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