Lessons from the Komagata Maru

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the Komagata Maru tragedy—a dark and revealing event in Canada’s history. On May 23, 1914, a ship chartered by 376 Indians reached Canada’s west coast. The SS Komagata Maru was detained for two weeks, its passengers driven to near-starvation before being turned back, ultimately into the violent hands of the British army.

In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued an official apology, though many in Canada’s South Asian community doubted his sincerity. Their doubts were confirmed the following year, when 76 refugee claimants fleeing the fallout of a brutal civil war in Sri Lanka were similarly detained. Then another ship arrived in 2010, the MV Sun Sea, carrying 492 Sri Lankan refugee claimants. This time the Harper government clamped down, not only detaining the refugees and branding them criminals, terrorists and “queue jumpers,” but ferociously gutting Canada’s refugee policy—creating a system that is arguably as restrictive and discriminatory as the one that greeted the Komagata Maru in 1914.

Today, the Harper government commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Komagata Maru tragedy, sending out a press release that I read with great curiosity. It did not disappoint: their press release was titled, “Learning From Canada’s Past.” Ah yes, government spin is an awesome thing to behold. So impressed was I that I immediately wrote to the appropriate ministers (Ministers Jason Kenney, Chris Alexander and Tim Uppal), suggesting, among other things, that the title must have been a clerical error.

For despite apologies and press releases, the government’s message is the same today as it was in 2010: that when it comes to refugees, or any migrants for that matter, Canada has absolutely no intention of learning from its past.

{side notes}

Unlike the MV Ocean Lady and MV Sun Sea, the passengers of the Komagata Maru were not refugees. They were, however, British subjects (just like Canadians) and as such had every right to enter Canada. The voyage was bringing immigrants, but it also represented a direct challenge to Canadian racist policy, which favoured “White” immigrants over all others, who were deemed “undesireable.”

I recommend reading up on the Komagata Maru, especially if, like me, you weren’t taught about it in school. A good place to start is this article about the centennial at The Tyee. It opens with a rather shocking quote from our Prime Minister at the time, Wilfred Laurier: “The people of Canada want to have a white country…”

For more thoughts on the contemporary context, read the open letter at komagatamarulegacy.tumblr.com, penned and signed by members of Canada’s South Asian community. There is also this piece from the Toronto Star, as well as this reflection at The Tyee on the connection to today’s Temporary Foreign Worker’s program.

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