Colby Cosh On The Komagata Maru: For What , Exactly, Are We Supposed To Be Apologizing?

Colby Cosh on the Komagata Maru:
For what, exactly, are we supposed to be apologizing?
National Post
Posted: May 13, 2008, 4:21 PM by Jonathan Kay

Conservative MP Jason Kenney announced this weekend that the government will finally issue a formal apology for the Komagata Maru incident of 1914, in which a Japanese ocean liner carrying 376 Indian passengers was prevented from docking in Vancouver for two months and eventually turned away. The conflict between the Komagata passengers and the authorities of the day, quickly forgotten with the advent of the First World War, has often been revived by Sikh Canadians and liberal politicians in our time as an occasion for outrage. One newspaper said Tuesday that the incident “is recognized today as one of the most egregious examples of the discriminatory immigration laws in Canada in the early 20th century.”

That Canada once had discriminatory immigration laws is true, but one wonders, given that the passengers of the ship and the officials who obstructed them are all long since dead, what purpose an apology now serves. Indeed, it is not quite obvious on whose behalf the apology is being given. It is clear enough that Canadians of non-Indian origin are supposed to feel bad about what a bunch of savagely racist British Columbians did long ago. None of us have anything specific to apologize for, however particularly if we don't live in B.C. Yet we will have to foot the bill for the “commemorative grants,” estimated at $2.5 million, that are now proposed.

The Komagata Maru is mentioned in Canadian newspapers almost every week. Yet despite the passion for “commemoration”, rarely does anyone outside a classroom take care to establish the context of the incident. In 1907, rising unemployment on the West Coast brought “anti-Asiatic” sentiment to a head with a worsening series of riots against Chinese and Japanese businesses. The Canadian government had no compunctions against excluding East Asian immigration. But workers from the subcontinent, as British subjects, presented a special problem. Already the British Raj was facing unrest in India over racial discrimination in access to the benefits of empire.

To placate both London and the workers of B.C., Laurier's government imposed a “continuous passage” policy requiring prospective immigrants to have sailed directly to Canada from their homeland. This made no explicit distinction between races, but since there was no organized direct steamship traffic between India and B.C., it represented a practical end to Indian immigration to Canada. The lamentable irony is that a “head tax” such as those imposed on Japanese and Chinese immigrants might have limited Indo-Canadian immigration in a more humane, less categorical fashion but it was seen as the worse option, because the racial discrimination against Canada's imperial brethren would thereby have been overt.

All the same, no one was fooled. The “continuous passage” rule, combined with other discriminatory practices such as forbidding interracial marriage, contributed to the growth of anti-imperial sentiment among Indians in Canada, in the neighbouring United States, and back in the Punjab. By 1914, a sophisticated political movement devoted to ghadr (“mutiny”), was recruiting and publishing revolutionary tracts in all these places. In some ways it seems an ancestor of today's Khalistan separatism. Some Ghadrist newspapers in the U.S. printed an ironic “employment” ad seeking “heroic soldiers” for the overthrow of British rule in Punjab. “Remuneration: death”, it promised. “Reward: martyrdom.”

The mostly Sikh passengers aboard the Komagata Maru, whose sea voyage began in Hong Kong, were all influenced by Ghadrist ideas and had read the literature. (Indeed, it was distributed on board.) Their leader, Gurdit Singh, a fisherman from Amritsar, organized the voyage with the explicit hope of either forcing the Canadian government to abandon the “continuous passage” rule or fanning the flames of rebellion in India and in Canada. When the ship reached Canadian waters and was stopped, a “shore committee” suddenly appeared and began agitating on behalf of the stranded passengers.

Representatives of the federal government now faced a dilemma, made worse by B.C. premier Richard McBride's peremptory announcement that under no circumstances would the passengers be allowed to set foot on shore. For all that Ottawa bore responsibility for permitting a fanatical seditionist movement to grow in reaction to its policies, could the government really back down from enforcing Canadian law, which the ship's complement was deliberately defying, at such a moment?

Those aboard the ship suffered terribly over the next two months for the lack of supplies but it is hard to see how responsibility for the delay could be ascribed solely to Canada. Immigration officials took the view that each individual application for admission to Canada had to be heard separately, since the Komagata Maru's leaders decided not to gamble everything on a single test case. Eventually, the Canadian government, for all its racist principles, was obliged to recognize proof of valid prior residence for 20 of the passengers and allow them to enter Canada. Once the other passengers' legal avenues had been exhausted, the federal government agreed to load the ship with food and medicine, at Canadian expense, for the return journey. Only by several miracles of federal statesmanship and the presence of the tiny Canadian navy was all-out war averted between the ship's passengers and a distressed, angry white population caught in the grip of a worldwide financial panic.

In short, the entire Komagata Maru affair was considerably more complicated than the black-and-white caricature which is now normally peddled. No excuse can be made for the prevailing racial sentiments of the time, but we live in our day, not theirs; and even if one is willing to imagine an unrealistically complaisant federal government applying an open-borders policy on the West Coast in 1914, the people of British Columbia would never have stood for it. If Laurier were resurrected today, and challenged to defend himself at the bar of history, he would probably make the point that his government's first obligations, like those of any government, were to its citizens, and not to non-citizens seeking the benefits of Canadian justice and freedom. Otherwise, he might ask, what does the word “citizen” mean?