Compensation For The Komagata Maru Makes No Sense

Compensation for the Komagata Maru makes no sense

Adrian MacNair
The National Post
July 5, 2010 5:00 pm

Its a story nearly 100 years old, and no one is still alive to confirm the details, but it still wont go away.

The Komagata Maru Incident that took place in Vancouver in 1914, has prompted the Punjab state government in India to consider asking the Canadian government for $150-million in recompense.

Hira Singh Gabria, the Punjab minister for tourism and cultural affairs, has assembled an 11-member committee to look into initiating legal and diplomatic proceedings against the Canadian government over an alleged $15,000 head tax levied on the passengers aboard the Komagata Maru.

How one arrives at a $150-million figure from $15,000 is unclear. Even if one adjusts the original number to the relative modern value after inflation, the total would have been the equivalent of $320,000.

The Komagata Maru was a Japanese steamship that carried 376 immigrants from Asia to the port of Vancouver. After remaining docked in Canada for two months, it was denied entry and forced to sail back to India. Many of the passengers ended up being killed or jailed when they arrived in Calcutta.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who has made many prominent public apologies since taking office in 2006, also apologized for the Komagata Maru incident while visiting in Surrey in the summer of 2008. In front of 8,000 people from the Punjab Indian community, Mr.Harper uttered the apology on behalf of the government of Canada.

But as soon as he stepped from the podium, the Sikh community rushed to denounce the apology as being hollow, since it wasnt delivered in the House of Commons like the Chinese Head Tax apology. Despite calls to repeat the apology in Parliament, the government ignored the request.

Though the Komagata Maru incident might be regrettable in a historical perspective, the Canadian government only acted according to the laws of the day. At the time, Canada had implemented the Continuous Passage Act, which mandated that immigrants arriving from another country could not stop in another country.

In 1914, a wealthy Sikh named Gurdit Singh living in Hong Kong, had decided to challenge the Canadian law by sending a shipload of Indians to Canada as immigrants. He charted the Komagata Maru, and sold tickets for the voyage up until mere days before the planned departure. Gurdit Singh was arrested by the Hong Kong police on a charge of selling tickets for an illegal voyage.

He was granted release by the governor of Hong Kong, and set sail on April 4, 1914. Though the law in Canada was very clear about continuous passage, they made stops in China and Japan to pick up more immigrants. In Shanghai, the press got wind of the departure of the steamship, and the Vancouver newspaper The Province published a news report of its impending arrival.

This advanced notice fuelled discriminatory sentiment in the Lower Mainland, with one article referring to it an invasion. By the time it docked in Vancouver on May 23, both the Indian community and Canadian immigration officers were waiting. The passengers were refused entry on the grounds that it contravened the Continuous Passage Act, and that the passengers did not have the minimum $200 to qualify for entry into British Columbia. (Canada has similar laws today requiring that immigrants be able to provide evidence of financial self-sufficiency during settlement.)

But where the $15,000 figure comes from, or the $150-million for that matter, has yet to be cleared up. According to historical accounts, the $15,000 is believed to have been an installment on the ships charter that came due upon arrival in Canada. When the ship was refused entry into British Columbia, the local Punjabi community raised $20,000 to pay the Japanese ship owners the charter fee to keep them from returning to Asia.

Although one can look at the Komagata Maru incident through a modern lens, its almost impossible to make complete sense of the thoughts, attitudes and laws that existed three generations ago. Lest we forget, women in 1914 were little more than the property of men and did not receive the vote until four years later.

Compensating Punjab for events which occurred 96 years ago makes little practical sense, particularly since nobody is still alive from the incident to benefit from the principle concept. It would be even more senseless to ask the taxpayers of today to pay reparations for something that occurred prior the First World War.

Adrian MacNair is a Vancouver writer and blogger.