Komagata Maru Passengers in 1914 Were Like Chinese Illegals In 1999

Our Bulletin of this week is a June 9 column from The Vancouver Sun.
The column compares the Komagata Maru ship passengers who attempted to enter Canada in 1914 to the Chinese boat people who attempted to enter Canada from mainland China in 1999.

The columnist explains that both groups were illegal. It would make no sense for future generations to apologize to the Chinese illegals. Similarly, it makes no sense to apologize to the Komagata Maru illegals now.


Let's not go overboard on apologies and redress

Illegal immigrants who are turned away for legitimate reasons are not the same as unjustly treated Canadian citizens

Daphne Bramham
The Vancouver Sun
Saturday, June 09, 2007

During the summer of 1999, more than 500 illegal migrants from China came ashore in British Columbia. They were not people fleeing persecution, poverty or war.

They were migrants who may not have been able to meet the immigration criteria as either skilled labourers or investor immigrants. They may also have been people who didn't want to wait the time it takes to go through the screening process. Or they may not have had the money to pay the immigration processing fees — the modern-day head tax.

Instead, they paid smugglers to get them into Canada. Of the 108 who claimed refugee status, only one woman was allowed to stay. The others were sent home after Canadian officials took months to process their claims according to the laws, regulations, policies and procedures that are mandated by Parliament.

Before Canada sent the illegal migrants back, the Chinese government gave its assurance that the migrants would not be jailed when they returned, although some were subject to “administrative procedures.”

Ninety years from now, our children may be asked to apologize and pay for a memorial for those unsuccesful migrants, if the Komagata Maru incident offers any example.

In 1914, Gurdit Singh Sarhali chartered a Japanese steamship from Hong Kong and sold passage to Canada to 376 Punjabis — mainly Sikhs. It was against the law for Indians to come to Canada by any route other than a direct one from India. The catch-22 was that there were no ships providing such a service.

In 1913, 38 Sikhs challenged the law and were allowed to stay in Canada. Encouraged by that, Singh chartered the Komagata Maru. Historical accounts suggest that his intent was to directly challenge the Canadian law. But perhaps that's what Chinese smugglers believe they are doing as well.

The Komagata Maru arrived in Vancouver on May 23, 1914, and was met by immigration officials who refused to let the illegal migrants disembark. The passengers remained on board stranded in the harbour for two months, while their case was heard in court.

The court upheld Canada's right to set rules for immigration and ordered the ship to leave. But the passengers, Singh and the ship's captain refused to leave. The Komagata Maru departed only after a naval cruiser was dispatched.

When the ship arrived in Calcutta and British officials attempted to arrest Singh, there was a riot in which 20 of the passengers were killed and more were arrested.

The violence wasn't confined to India. In Vancouver, the incident had divided the South Asian community. In the months that followed the ship's departure, there were a series of retributive shootings on people believed to be police informants.

That fall, Mewa Singh assassinated an immigration inspector. He was tried and eventually executed.

For years, the Indo-Canadian community has been demanding a formal apology and a memorial and a commemoration of what happened to the passengers. And documents released earlier this week to CanWest New Service indicate that the Conservative government is considering doing that, along with apologies and redress for dozens of other ethnic communities with historic grievances.

There are legitimate reasons for redressing past human rights abuses. Compensation for Japanese-Canadians, who were stripped of property, jobs and dignity when they were forced into camps during the Second World War, was one.

Similar compensation and recognition packages are appropriate for Ukrainian-Canadians — 5,000 of whom were arrested and had their property expropriated during the First World War — and Italian-Canadians, 700 of whom were imprisoned during the Second World War.

They were all Canadian citizens who had broken no laws. Their only crime was their ancestry.

But is it appropriate to apologize to people who were refused entry to Canada?

In today's parlance, the Komagata Maru passengers were illegal migrants. They may have couched their arrival in political terms, but they were no different than the Chinese who came by the boatloads in 1999 and no different than Koreans who arrive in Vancouver and pay someone to smuggle them into the United States.

It must have been awful for the Komagata Maru passengers to have come all this way, to spend two months with little food and water in Vancouver harbour, only to be sent back and face jail time. But it was their choice to challenge a foreign law. Like other illegal migrants, they tried and failed.

Countries have every right to set their own immigration policies, picking and choosing which people and how many to allow in each year. But more than that, governments have a responsibility to set immigration policies that are advantageous to their citizens. They have a duty to protect their own citizens' rights to decent homes, jobs, opportunities for advancement, good schools for their children, health care and so on.

Over the years, Canada has developed one of the most generous immigration policies of any country in the world. One in five Canadians is an immigrant and we are all lucky to be here.

But Canada can not accept everyone who shows up at our doorstep and nor could it 90 years ago.

It's unfortunate, but it's not something we need to apologize for.