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The Komagata Maru Affair

Previously named the SS Stubbenhuk and the SS Sicilia under German ownership, the Komagata Maru was a steamship owned by the Shinyei Kisen Goshi Kaisha company carrying 376 passengers (337 Sikhs, 27 Muslims, and 12 Hindus) from Asia to Canada in 1913-1914.

The passengers were mostly male and of Punjabi descent, largely from farming villages or one of three districts in Central Punjab–Doaba, Malwa, and Majha. Many of the passengers served in the Sikh Regiment of the British Indian Army, while others were in police outposts in East Asia from Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Singapore. Attracted by high wages and opportunities for economic growth, those aboard were generally immigrants leaving their families to emigrate to Canada with plans to engage in unskilled labour and make money to send back to their families.

Moving to Canada was not easy for Southeast Asian immigrants. In 1903, the first few cohorts of Southeast Asian immigrants settled in Vancouver forming the first few Southeast Asian communities. Around 90 percent of these immigrants were Sikh males in search of work that could provide them with the means to support the families they left behind. Despite their settlement in Canada, the Southeast Asian community continued to experience a series of discriminatory and race-based policies enacted by the Province of British Columbia which limited their rights to employment (especially in the public-service sphere), to perform jury duty, and to vote, among other restrictions. The purposeful exclusion of the Southeast Asian immigrants was unjustified and hid behind a veil of worry by the local population that the presence of Southeast Asians would remove economic opportunities and incite economic competition.

On May 23, 1914, the Komagata Maru arrived at Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet. Once the ship reached port, immigrant passengers were not allowed onshore due to anti-Asian immigration regulations. These included a 1908 regulation that required all immigrants considered “Asiatic” to have $200 upon entering Canada. Further, the 1914 continuous journey regulation (which was not officially terminated until 1947) required immigrants entering Canada to arrive via direct travel from their country of origin. This created difficulty for those migrating from India given that there was no established continuous route from India to Canada. The Komagata Maru itself travelled through Hong Kong and Japan before reaching Canada, and therefore those intending to immigrate were not permitted to do so.

Most passengers (those that were immigrating to Canada) were detained on board for two months, experiencing inhumane living conditions, including water and food shortages. The plight of the passengers led members of the local Southeast Asian community to challenge the legitimacy of the regulations targeting Asian immigrants. The courts ruled that the regulations were inconsistent with Immigration Act, however by the time the ruling was made the federal government had altered the wording in the Act, which enabled the restrictions on the disembarkment of the passengers to continue.

Deterred by the possibility of another prolonged legal battle--which would also mean staying aboard even longer–on on July 23, 2014, the Komagata Maru and most the passengers who had travelled from India went back out to sea. After some fraught negotiations, the Canadian government provided supplies that would support the passengers as far as Hong Kong.

After arriving on the port of Budge Budge near Kolkata in September, only 321 passengers reached where British officials were recruiting troops in India to fight in the First World War. However, there was great distrust of the troops, affecting the treatment of the Komagata Maru passengers upon their arrival. The situation escalated when 20 passengers were killed at the hands of the British Indian Police after refusing to join a specially commissioned train heading to Punjab.  

Sikhs aboard the Komagata Maru in May 1914 on the dock of Vancouver, British Colombia,  Library and Archives Canada

An apology made in the House of Commons will not erase the pain and suffering of those who lived through that shameful experience. But an apology is not only the appropriate action to take, but it’s also the right action to take, and the House is the appropriate place for it to happen.” 

Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, May 18, 2016  

It was not until 2008 that any apology for the Komagata Maru incident occured, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized at a Sikh community festival. However, members of the Southeast Asian community felt that this was inadequate and that a more official apology should have occurred in Parliament. Almost a decade later, the ongoing backlash prompted another apology from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the House of Commons.

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Contributors: Gurjot Riat, Mansanjam Singh, Carmel Mahdi