When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau formally apologizes in the Commons this month for Canada’s rejection in 1914 of hundreds of would-be South Asian immigrants aboard the Komagata Maru, Ali Kazimi will be among those listening closely.
One of the words he hopes not to hear is “incident.”
For Kazimi, a York University professor who has produced a film and written a book on the Komagata Maru, there was nothing incidental about Canada’s rejection of the ship’s passengers, most of them Sikhs from Punjab.
“My hope is that this won’t just be an apology about a so-called dark chapter that happened and therefore we bring closure to this and move on,” he told the Star.
“The real value in the apology lies in a re-examination” of Canada then and since, he said, “which gets us to recognizing that Canada for the first 100 years of its existence had what was effectively a ‘White Canada’ policy.”
In the pre-dawn of May 23, 1914, the chartered Japanese ship Komagata Maru steamed into Vancouver harbour. The 376 people on board — fellow British subjects within the British Empire — were challenging the empire to fulfill its promise of equality and justice.
To bar their entry, Canadian authorities used the so-called “continuous journey clause,” which was put in place to limit immigration from non-European countries and which required that would-be immigrants from India had to travel to Canada directly from India. There was no such service.
“To admit Orientals in large numbers would mean the end, the extinction of the white people,” said Sir Richard McBride, B.C.’s premier of the day. “And we always have in mind the necessity of keeping this a white man’s country.”
The confrontation — dubbed a “Hindoo invasion” in the local press — galvanized the local Sikh community, which at a meeting attended by about 500 people raised remarkable amounts of money in support of the passengers.
But the B.C. Court of Appeal upheld the rejection of a passenger, whose case represented the entire group. And two months after anchoring, those aboard the Komagata Maru — except for 22 men who could prove prior Canadian residence, and a passenger who fell sick on the ship and died in Vancouver — were turned away and escorted out of the harbour by the Canadian navy cruiser Rainbow.
“We failed them utterly,” Trudeau said in April. “As a nation, we should never forget the prejudice suffered by the Sikh community at the hands of the Canadian government of the day.”
That’s the point on which Kazimi’s attention will be focused.
He contends the confrontation was not an isolated incident, or a matter of a particular government, or particular day. Rather, it was a decision consistent with a century-long “white Canada” immigration policy.
It’s important, he said, that Trudeau acknowledge such on behalf of Canadians, and that the country get over its denial and speak honestly about its creation as “a white settler state.”
Kazimi, chair of York’s Department of Cinema and Media Arts, came to Canada in 1983 from India. Even in the last decades of the 20th century, discrimination was prevalent, he said.
When he arrived as a foreign student on scholarship, he and a colleague were pulled from the immigration line to be interviewed by an immigration officer who questioned their documents, he recalled.
“We said, ‘Our professors are waiting outside, you can call them in and check.’ . . . He just kept grilling us and then he finally said, ‘You know what, the only reason I’m letting you into my country is because you speak such good English.”
“That moment stayed with me,” said Kazimi.
Once in Canada, he noted that the country’s treatment of newcomers didn’t quite match the self-congratulatory mythology as a welcoming society.
“That’s when I started digging through the idea of immigration history.”
In 2004, he produced a film, Continuous Journey, about the Komagata Maru. In 2012, he published a book, Undesirables: White Canada and the Komagata Maru.
Today, when he shows his film, “there are collective gasps and people look horrified and mortified and shocked because they didn’t know about it.”
Next month, he hopes, everyone will know.
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