Canada’s apology for the Komagata Maru incident of 1914, which embodied its civil rights violations against Sikh immigrants, may be the most sincere apology made by a government.
In his May 18 speech in parliament, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said “sorry” two times and “apology” or “apologize” nine times in the House of Commons, which was packed to the rafters with Sikh Canadians, many of whom were descendants of those aboard the Komagata Maru.
“More than a century ago, a great injustice took place,” Trudeau said. “When we make mistakes, we must apologize, and recommit ourselves to doing better.”
The formal apology took many years to fruition. It was a nonpartisan effort by members of parliament from Surrey-Newton, Winnipeg North, Calgary Heritage, Calgary Midnapore and Surrey North who petitioned the Canadian government for years, Trudeau said. Many organizations, such as the Professor Mohan Singh Memorial Foundation, also sought resolution for victims and their families.
But Trudeau particularly acknowledged the efforts of the minister of national defense, Harjit Singh Sajjan, also seated in parliament during the event, for bringing national attention to the Komagata Maru incident. The Sikh minister is the former commanding officer of the British Columbia Regiment Duke of Connaught's Own, the same regiment that once forced out the Komagata Maru, he said.
“Mr. Speaker, Canada cannot solely be blamed for every tragic mistake that occurred with the Komagata Maru and its passengers,” Trudeau said. “But Canada's government was, without question, responsible for the laws that prevented these passengers from immigrating peacefully and securely.
“For that, and for every regrettable consequence that followed, we are sorry.”
On May 23, 1914, a Japanese steamship named the Komagata Maru sailed into the Burrard Inlet in Vancouver with 376 passengers. Nearly all of them were Sikh immigrants from Punjab, British India, seeking work. And nearly all were denied entry into Canada, even though they arrived lawfully.
In 1908, Canada had passed the Continuous Passage Act to prohibit the immigration of people who had not made a “continuous journey” from their native land or place of birth. The doctrine essentially prevented immigrants from Asian countries because it was nearly impossible to travel without stopping from a place like India to Canada.
But the Komagata Maru was successful in making the continuous journey. The ship originated in Japan, it picked up passengers in India and arrived on the Pacific Coast of Canada. The passengers still were not permitted to disembark.
The Canadian government was not the only one to commit offenses against the Sikh community. The first Sikhs to immigrate to the United States travelled south from Vancouver to places like Washington state and California. While these immigrates were allowed to cross the border, they still were treated as cheap labor and were often taken advantage of or mistreated. Racist riots ensued against them in Bellingham, Washington, but also in Canada.
Adding to the discriminatory Canadian law was the racist rhetoric of the time. During the early 1900s, there was in influx of nativism in North America that discouraged further immigration in Canada and the United States. At the time of the Komagata Maru, the local media reflected this sentiment with articles depicting a “Hindoo” invasion, which referred to everyone from India, even though they were mostly Sikhs.
The prejudice against immigrants extended to the highest forms of government as Sir Richard McBride, the conservative premier of British Columbia, maintained the superiority of Canada’s white population.
The Komagata Maru remained in Canadian waters for nearly two-months before returning back to India. Once back in Kolkata, formerly Calcutta, the Sikh passengers were subjected to arrest for suspected treason. This ended in a riot that left at least 19 dead and many others under arrest.
The passengers were not allowed to disembark due to fear that any effort to detain them would lead to court challenges,” said Professor John Price, professor of Japanese history at the University of Victoria, and Satwinder Bains, director of the Centre for Indo Canadian Studies, University of the Fraser Valley, Canada, in their 2013 article “The Extraordinary Story of the Komagata Maru: Commemorating the One Hundred Year Challenge to Canada’s Immigration Colour Bar.”
“From the moment it entered Vancouver harbor, an armed launch constantly patrolled around the ship, holding the passengers as virtual prisoners without legal recourse and preventing supporters and lawyers from boarding the vessel,” they wrote.
A hundred years later, Trudeau’s speech was greeted with a standing ovation. His apology was followed by more apologies from other members of parliament.
“As Canadians we have always taken pride in our country’s commitment to our shared values of justice, freedom, tolerance, and human rights,” said Rona Ambrose, leader of the official opposition and interim leader of the Conservative Party of Canada. “However there have been times when Canada has not fulfilled these aspirations and we must recognize and try to set right those periods in our past when we have not lived up to our values.”
“It is an honor for my colleagues and myself to participate today in this official apology for the historic tragedy of the Komagata Maru” said Thomas Mulcair, chief of the New Democratic Party of Canada. “(This is) an apology that we have been waiting for, for far to long.”
Canada’s apology comes as just one of the many strides its prime minster has made in transforming the Canadian government. Trudeau’s cabinet includes the most Sikh members in the world. And Punjabi became an official language of the Canadian parliament as Trudeau assumed office in November 2015.