History catches up with Komagata Maru villain — and it’s good riddance

In general, oppose taking down statues and monuments, and prefer interpretative plaques and panels that educate and inform:

In recent years, various Canadian government bodies and institutions have “unerected” monuments and renamed buildings commemorating historical figures who contributed to the cultural genocide of Canada’s Indigenous Peoples.

John A. Macdonald, Hector-Louis Langevin, Edward Cornwallis, Joseph Trutch and Matthew Begbie — men who were proponents of odious anti-Indigenous institutions such as the residential school system — have all had their names scrubbed off plaques or statues mothballed into permanent storage.

Clearly these “complex” individuals, or “men of their times,” merited a historical reputational downgrade and/or some form of legacy asterisking. Whether they deserve further amendment, or even censure, however, is problematic.

But if there is any Canadian figure who merits historical erasure — as nearly impossible as that is to defend, thanks to George Orwell — it’s the latest and fully deserving figure to be added to the list above: H.H. Stevens.

Terry Glavin: The real story of the Komagata Maru

Terry Glavin provides additional historical and broader context:

It’s true that many, if not most, of the passengers later disavowed any seditious intent, but telling the story the way Trudeau told it does a grave disservice to the memory of the brave radicals who organized the Komagata Maru enterprise, from the outset, in the cause of India’s freedom.

A quixotic propaganda-of-the-deed collaboration between the Socialist Party of Canada and the revolutionary Ghadar Movement, the explicit purpose of the effort was to mount a legal challenge to the “continuous passage” immigration regulations that India’s British overlords had persuaded Ottawa to adopt to stem the flight of pro-independence Indian militants to Canada. The larger aim was to bolster the ranks of insurrectionists plotting India’s emancipation from the relative safety of North America or, failing that, to expose the cruel hoax of equal citizenship in the British Empire, first asserted by the Empress of India, Queen Victoria herself, more than a half-century earlier.

The slogan of the Komagata Maru campaign’s organizers was not: “We choose Canada, please be nice to us.” It was: “What is our name? Mutiny. What is our work? Mutiny.” This was a specific reference to the 1857 Indian insurrection known as the Sepoy Rebellion, named after the British Empire’s native soldiers in India, known as sepoys. In the Urdu language, “mutiny” is “ghadar.”

Ghadar Movement leaders saw to the organization of the ship’s voyage, led the “shore committee” activities while the ship was waylaid in Burrard Inlet, and eventually provided arms to Komagata Maru’s passengers during their stopover in Yokohama on the return journey to Kolkata. In the days after its forced departure from Vancouver Harbour, Ghadarite propaganda aimed at Vancouver’s Indian expatriates was explicit: “Go to your country and set up a rebellion at once.” Even before the ship weighed anchor and headed out to sea, the Socialist Party’s H.M. Fitzgerald was exhorting Vancouver’s Sikhs to heed the Ghadarite call and return to India to take up the fight. Within two years, half of British Columbia’s roughly 2,000 Sikhs had done just that.

The Socialist Party provided the Komagata Maru’s legal defence in Vancouver, which was no small affront to “progressive” thinking at the time. British Columbia’s labour movement and left-wing leadership had been rife with racist hooliganism ever since B.C.’s assortment of socialist leagues and union councils coalesced into the Provincial Progressive Party in 1902. Fractious and comically sectarian, the one thing the party delegates firmly agreed on at their founding convention was that Asian immigrants should be barred from Canada.

All this is not to say that the Komagata Maru passengers were not treated abysmally, or that none of the passengers intended to settle peacefully in Canada, or that they were not subjected to racist immigration rules, or that Canada has nothing to apologize for, or that the passengers were not unjustly denied permission to disembark in Vancouver. But to cast them all in the role of “victims,” as Trudeau put it, commits an indignity against the truth and dishonours the cause of Indian freedom to which the Ghadarites and their eccentric, ahead-of-their-time socialist friends were so passionately committed. Parliamentary apologies are all well and good, but a formal House of Commons’ acknowledgment of their bravery would have been a more worthy tribute.

During his apology for Canada’s role in the Komagata Maru affair last week, Trudeau said this: “When we make mistakes, we must apologize, and recommit ourselves to doing better.”

This is a fine sentiment. We might also hope that committing ourselves to being a bit more honest about Canada’s past, rather than just putting history to the purpose of making ourselves appear so much better than our forebears, should be something to strive for, too.

Source: Terry Glavin: The real story of the Komagata Maru | National Post

Trudeau’s plan to apologize for the Komagata Maru is no solution to racism, say critics

Ujjal Dosanjh and others on the Komagata Maru apology:

Justin Trudeau, for instance, promised before the 2015 campaign to apologize in Parliament because some Punjabi-Canadians were upset that his predecessor, Stephen Harper, had tendered an apology on behalf of Canada at an event in Surrey.

“As Pierre Trudeau predicted, it’s becoming a slippery slope. There’s no end to it. And there are other apology-seekers at the gates now.”

He said his only exception is in accepting Harper’s apology to Aboriginal Canadians for residential schools in 2008 and Mulroney’s to Japanese-Canadians two decades earlier as both involved Canadian citizens.

But he said even in these cases, he is only accepting the reality of these apologies after the fact. In retrospect, Dosanjh said, he wishes Pierre Trudeau’s successors had followed his lead.

“Just because there’s an apology there won’t be an end to racism,” he said. “It’s not like we’re going to wake up tomorrow and there’s going to be no poverty or inequality or discrimination. That’s where the efforts need to be.”

Dosanjh also criticized Trudeau for announcing his pending apology last month at a Sikh religious event in Ottawa, saying it’s “dangerous” to mix religion and politics.

B.C. Liberal MP Randeep Sarai, whose wife’s great-grandfather was on the Komagata Maru and who was wounded and imprisoned after the riot, said he strongly disagrees with Dosanjh.

“This symbolizes who we are as Canadians, it’s hugely symbolic,” said the MP for Surrey Centre. “It helps heal wounds, and you feel more Canadian once a wrong has been righted.”

B.C. historian Hugh Johnston said Tuesday that both Justin Trudeau and Harper, rather than apologize for a single incident, should have focused instead on the policy that severely restricted immigration from “non-traditional” countries like India before the 1960s.

“The really big thing is the policy over half a century, not just one incident,” said Johnston, author of The Voyage of the Komagata Maru, the first authoritative book on the incident.

Canada went from a country of roughly 30,000 Sikhs in 1971 to about a half-million today, he noted.

“That strikes me as more significant than turning back a ship with less than 400 people aboard in 1914,” said Johnston, whose book was first published in 1979 and revised and expanded in 2014.

But Johnston, like Dosanjh, questions the notion that politicians should apologize over events in the past.

“I’m an historian. I share Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s view. You can’t rewrite history.

Source: Trudeau’s plan to apologize for the Komagata Maru is no solution to racism, say critics

Descendants of Komagata Maru passengers ‘pleased’ by apology

Apologies if made should be done in the House. As former PM Harper discovered, doing so outside satisfies no one (see my earlier Komagatu Maru Apology). Will be particularly powerful with 17 Canadian Sikh MPs:

A century after her great-grandfather was turned away from Canada while on board the Komagata Maru, Sukhi Ghuman will be in the House of Commons this week to hear the Prime Minister apologize for the slight.

“It’s staggering. I don’t think [my great-grandfather] ever thought this moment would come,” says Ms. Ghuman, 36, who will join other descendants of passengers to witness Wednesday’s apology, along with B.C. Premier Christy Clark.

“We’re all just astonished and very pleased Prime Minister [Justin] Trudeau has decided to do a formal apology.”

 Mr. Trudeau will be seeking to make amends for what happened in 1914 when the Komagatu Maru arrived in Vancouver’s harbour from Hong Kong with 376 passengers, mostly Sikhs from India.

Only 24 were allowed to land, while the rest remained on board the ship for two months – victims of the era’s exclusionary laws. The ship’s passengers and crew then returned to India, where 19 people were killed on its arrival in Calcutta in a skirmish with British soldiers. Others were jailed.

Harnam Singh Sohi – Ms. Ghuman’s great-grandfather – came from Punjab hoping to work in Vancouver to provide funds for his family in India and bring them to Canada.

Once the ship returned to India, he forever ruled out returning to Canada.

Former prime minister Stephen Harper apologized in 2008, but not in Parliament. Some who were seeking an apology said few knew about Mr. Harper’s apology until it was over.

On Wednesday, Mr. Trudeau will follow up on a long-standing promise and deliver a formal apology in Parliament.

“The laws that were discriminatory against people considered undesirable were passed in Parliament. So the apology being given in Parliament is a circling back to rectify that original wrong,” says Naveen Girn of Vancouver, who has curated exhibitions about the Komagata Maru at Simon Fraser University and Lower Mainland museums.

Mr. Girn, who will also be in Ottawa for the event, notes that a parliamentary apology means the amends are forever preserved in Hansard, which is important.

Source: Descendants of Komagata Maru passengers ‘pleased’ by apology – The Globe and Mail

Komagatu Maru Apology

This has been a long-standing issue for many in the Indo-Canadian community, particularly Sikh Canadians. Reading the announcement, reminded me of the previous attempt by former Prime Minister Harper to do so at an Indo-Canadian community picnic on 3 August 2008.

It was a “drive-by” apology, to use my irreverent words, given that the PM and his party had to beat a hasty retreat after one activist seizing the mike and denouncing the fact that it was not delivered in Parliament. See Harper apologizes in B.C. for 1914 Komagata Maru incident, CBC, 3 August 2008.

My takeaway from that incident (I was present) was that any apology, if made, should be done in the House of Commons (as was the case for Japanese wartime internment, the Chinese head tax and residential school abuse). Any other approach made the community being apologized to feel second-rate, as was the case with Italian Canadian wartime restrictions (former PM Mulroney delivered an apology at a dinner) or the above case of the Komagata Maru).

So while there will be predictable debate about whether an apology is warranted, the House is the appropriate forum.

An Indo-Canadian friend of mine reminded me that neither the Government of India or Britain have ever apologized for opening fire on the ship and killing passengers.

Will be interesting to see if Italian Canadians continue to press for a formal House apology.

Text of the PM press release:

The Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, today announced that on May 18, 2016, he will make a formal apology in the House of Commons for the Komagata Maru incident.

This year will mark the 102nd anniversary of the Komagata Maru incident, where 376 passengers of mostly Sikh descent arrived in Vancouver and were refused entry into Canada due to the discriminatory laws of the time.

The Prime Minister made the announcement at Vaisakhi on the Hill concluding a three day religious ceremony, where Sikh scriptures were read continuously to commemorate Vaisakhi.

Quotes

“As a nation, we should never forget the prejudice suffered by the Sikh community at the hands of the Canadian government of the day.  We should not – and we will not.”
– Rt. Hon. Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of 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, it’s the right action to take, and the House is the appropriate place for it to happen.”
– Rt. Hon. Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada

And the full remarks of the PM at the Vaisakhi ceremony on the Hill:

This year will mark the 102nd anniversary of the Komagata Maru incident where 376 passengers of mostly Sikh descent arrived in Vancouver and were refused entry to Canada due to the discriminatory laws of the time. The passengers of the Komagata Maru like millions of immigrants to Canada since were seeking refuge and better lives for their families. With so much to contribute to their new home, they chose Canada and we failed them utterly. As a nation, we should never forget the prejudice suffered by the Sikh community at the hands of the Canadian government of the day. We should not and we will not. That is why next month, on May 18, I will stand in the House of Commons and offer a full apology for the Komagata Maru incident.

An apology made in the House of Commons will not erase the pain and suffering of those who lives through that shameful experience, but an apology is not only the appropriate action to take, it’s the right action to take and the House is the appropriate place for it to happen. It was in the House of Commons that the laws that prevented the passengers from disembarking were first passed and so it’s fitting that the government should apologize there on behalf of all Canadians. It’s what the victims of the Komagata Maru incident deserve and we owe them nothing less.

Just as we look back and acknowledge where we’re failed, so too do we need to celebrate the remarkable success of the Sikh community here in Canada and Vaisakhi is the perfect opportunity to do just that. April is a special month, not only for Sikhs but for all Canadians. It marks the anniversary of the adoption of the Charter of rights and freedoms which ensures that no Canadian needs to make the choice between their religion and activities in their day-to-day lives. The charter ensures that the five Ks are protected. As Canadian Sikhs gather with their loved ones to mark the creation of the Khalsa, it’s a chance to reflect on shared values and celebrate the successes of the past year.

What Justin Trudeau said today about the Komagata Maru incident

Behind the Komagata Maru’s fight to open Canada’s border and the Question of an Apology

Fascinating account of the legal battles and the lawyer, J. Edward Bird, regarding the passengers of the Komagata Maru. Well worth reading:

The government’s strategy became clear the very day the Komagata Maru arrived in Vancouver. Health screening, a process normally completed within an hour, followed by immigration board interviews of all passengers, dragged on for days. The ship became a prison – no one was allowed off or on; food and water began to run low. The passengers’ lawyer, J. Edward Bird, was denied the right of access to his clients for weeks.

“I can only surmise that the instructions from the department at Ottawa to the immigration authorities here was to delay matters and delay matters and procrastinate and delay until such time as these people were starved back to their original port from whence they came,” he told a meeting hall packed with both South Asians and whites on June 21. “They talk about socialists and anarchists. There are no set of anarchists in Canada like the immigration officials who defy all law and order.”

Behind the Komagata Maru’s fight to open Canada’s border – The Globe and Mail

Interesting that Leader of the Opposition Tom Mulcair has called for a formal apology in Parliament.

I witnessed PM Harper’s “drive-by” apology in 2008 at the Surrey community picnic and it was not pretty. I quickly came to the conclusion that if governments wished to apologize (without legal liability for events which occurred in the past), the only acceptable way to do so was in Parliament, as was the case for Indian Residential Schools, the Chinese Head Tax, and Japanese WW2 Internment:

As we celebrate Asian Heritage Month this May, we cannot ignore the mistakes of our past — we must remember the history of the Komagata Maru Tragedy.

We must condemn these acts, respectfully, officially, and with sincerity, no matter when they occurred.

That is why New Democrats stand with members of the Indo-Canadian community in their call for an official apology from the Parliament of Canada for the Komagata Maru Tragedy.

In 2012, Canada’s New Democrats presented an Opposition Day Motion calling on Stephen Harper and the Conservatives to deliver an apology long overdue — they refused.

While successive Liberal and Conservative governments have failed to do the right thing, the NDP has always advocated for an apology.

Today, we renew our call.

Let’s not wait another 100 years to do the right thing — it’s time for the government to act now.

Mulcair: 100 years after Komagata Maru tragedy, Parliament’s apology is overdue | Toronto Star.