Ottawa Was Justified in Sending the Komagata Maru Back to India


This year is the 98th anniversary of the Komagata Maru incident in which several hundred East Indians who had arrived by ship in Vancouver were denied access to Canada.

Although some Sikhs like to portray the KM incident as an incident in which they were victimized, the truth is much different. Here are two reasons why the federal gov’t was justified in sending the KM back to India.


Low-wage labourers had precipitated an enormous amount of anger, resentment and worker-displacement in British Columbia for decades. The Sikhs on board the Komagata Maru (as well as the ones who had come a decade or so earlier) belonged to this group. The Chinese and Japanese were the others. The Chinese and the Japanese labourers, who had arrived earlier, had earned in their countries one-twentieth and one tenth respectively of what Canadian workers earned. The East Indians were even cheaper labour. Most had worked in India at wages as low as one-fiftieth of Canadian wages. Canadian workers and Canada’s gov’t believed the East Indians’ low wage tolerance would cause the same worker-displacement problems that the Chinese and Japanese had caused.

How did displacement occur? Chinese labour contractors set the precedent for cheap labourers in B.C. They underbid other contractors when groups of labourers  were involved or arranged to hire out individual Chinese labourers. To obtain contracts with employers, some of these Chinese contractors bid so low that they lost money on the contracts they signed. To compensate, these contractors required the Chinese labourers to buy food and supplies from them at prices which ensured that the contractors would re-gain the money they had lost on the labour part of their contracts. Some of these contractors became the wealthiest people in B.C.’s Chinatowns.

Like modern snakeheads, Chinese labour contractors virtually owned their labourers. The labourers who came to B.C. could never have afforded to pay their fare from China to Canada and the Head Tax. The Chinese contractor bought steamship tickets and paid the Head Tax for labourers on the condition that the labourers would work for them. To make sure the contractors got repaid, the contractors arranged with employers to have Chinese labourers’ wages paid directly to the contractors every payday until the Chinese labourers had paid off their debts. In the early years of this system, it often took two years for the labourers to pay back what they owed.

Many white labourers complained to both Royal Commissioners and to individual politicians that this arrangement meant that Chinese labourers were virtual slave labourers and unfair competitors. They said that these imported workers were displacing them from their jobs or keeping wages low. Many told of white workers who had had to leave the country because of cheap labour. Others complained that the practice of importing contract labourers had discouraged many real settler families (in contrast to single male temporary workers from Asia) from ever coming to Canada. Many modern historians have ignored these complaints and given their sympathy to the Chinese, Japanese and East Indians.

The most dramatic example of potential displacement occurred in 1907. Canada’s Deputy Minister of Labour, Mackenzie King, uncovered a Japanese labour contractor’s plan to import up to 2000 Japanese labourers probably to displace a large part of the CPR workforce of 5000 in western Canada. Rumours about this plan (and another to displace five hundred coal miners at a Dunsmuir-owned mine on Vancouver Island) had circulated in the Vancouver area prior to the Sept. 7, 1907 Vancouver Riot. Contrary to what the politically correct like to preach today about the cause of the riot, these displacement contracts contributed significantly to that riot.

Also contrary to what some Sikhs contend today, it was not Sikh devotion to the British Empire that resulted in Sikh interest in Canada. Instead, it was a decline in steamship ticket sales to the Chinese (especially after the $500 head tax in 1904) that caused the steamship companies to look to India for replacement passengers. This is a clear example of the connection between the KM incident and earlier cheap labourer incidents. Mackenzie King discovered this when he conducted a Royal Commission in 1907 to find out why about 12,000 Japanese, East Indians and Chinese had arrived in B.C. in the first 10 months of 1907. At this time, the population of Vancouver was about 60,000. Mackenzie King stated that such an influx caused “consternation” in the Vancouver population.

The Royal Commissioners of the 1901 inquiry into Japanese and Chinese immigration to Canada summed up their concern (and probable Canadian concerns in 1907 and with the KM in 1914) in one major question: Does Canada need these cheap labourers? The answer was a resounding “NO !”

The 1907 Arrival Of Many Low-Wage Labourers Precipitated The September, 1907 Vancouver Asiatic Riot


The Komagata Maru (KM) incident was preceded by the Panama Maru incident of late 1913. That incident helps to explain much of what happened in the Komagata Maru incident 7 months later. The Panama Maru had docked In Canada with 56 East Indians on October 17, 1913. Most of the passengers had not lived in Canada previously, but claimed that they had. They produced fraudulent money order receipts, time cards, etc. to substantiate their claims. Immigration authorities allowed 17 (those physically recognized to have been here before) to land, but they detained 39 of the 56.

A Board of Inquiry looked into the case and ordered the 39 to be deported, but litigious East Indians in Canada determined to make the Panama Maru case a test case. Their lawyer, J. Edward Bird, appeared before Justice Dennis Murphy, but Murphy denied their claim. Bird then went to Chief Justice Gordon Hunter, notorious for appearing drunk in court and a clear embarrassment to the government. Hunter upheld their appeal on a technicality, so most of the 39 were released. The remaining 4, who had previously been ordered deported for medical reasons, escaped from detention and could not be found.

The Panama Maru incident was a big embarrassment to the federal gov’t. It showed British Columbia that immigration bungling continued and that much stronger measures had to be taken. Immigration authorities became determined, if possible, to avoid the courts and the threat of escape from detention.

Gurdit Singh, the man who organized the KM voyage, had enjoyed litigation success in Singapore and was confident that he could repeat the success in Canada. In fact, despite the warnings of British officials, he boasted to authorities in Hong Kong (the port from which the KM departed for Canada) that he would challenge the Canadian gov’t in court and that after he had succeeded, he would bring up to 25,000 labourers from India to Canada, particularly to B.C. This was not just an economic threat, but also a cultural one. (As a result of Canadian weakness in dealing with these threats today, both have been realized  in parts of B.C.)  Later in Japan, Singh boasted that 10,000 Indian troops (mostly Sikhs) would rebel if the KM were stopped from landing.

Significantly, in May of 1914, Canada was in the midst of a recession, with very high unemployment. As Gurdit Singh would quickly discover, 1914 was not a wise time to launch a test case for Sikh labourers.

In addition, both the Panama Maru and KM incidents had been preceded by extensive Chinese and Japanese fraud:

A. The Chinese committed extensive fraud to avoid the Head Tax. Essentially, the Head Tax was like a tariff. It tried to discourage cheap Chinese labour from entering Canada. In cases where Chinese still wanted to come, the Head Tax tried to neutralize the wage advantage Chinese labourers had. However, in response to Ottawa’s generosity in giving re-entry certificates to Chinese labourers who wanted to return to China for a visit, many Chinese sold or loaned these certificates to Chinese in China who evaded the Head Tax when they came to Canada. Chinese fraud reached epidemic levels after the $500 Head Tax in 1904. In 1910-11, Justice Dennis Murphy conducted a Royal Commission into “Chinese Frauds” . He found many: Chinese had stowed away aboard ships coming to British Columbia; they claimed that they were businessmen (at that time exempt from the Head Tax); they pretended to be sons of businessmen (also exempt from the Head Tax); they impersonated others, etc. He also found that the Chinese interpreter, who was employed to interview incoming Chinese, was involved in the fraud and that he had abetted many to enter Canada illegally. For details see

B. The Japanese also committed much fraud. In order for Japanese to receive naturalization papers which were required to obtain fishing boat licences in the late 1890’s and early 1900’s, many Japanese had committed perjury when asked to declare how long they had spent in Canada. (A minimum number of years was required.) By 1900, this had resulted in Japanese fishermen owning 45% of all gill-net fishing licences. By committing fraud, they had become an economic force completely disproportionate to their numbers. Their willingness to accept low fish prices caused considerable anger and conflict with other fishermen.

In contrast to chaotic China, Japan had firm control of emigration from Japan. (NOTE: Emigration from China and Japan was a Chinese and Japanese labourer issue. Other Chinese and Japanese were exempt.) In the early 1900’s, Canada was able to negotiate agreements in which Japan either forbade or severely limited Japanese labourers going to Canada. But, in 1907, a Japanese labour contractor company from Vancouver used its corrupt influence to convince the Japanese government to give passports to Japanese labourers to go to Canada.

When this fraud (and other illegal Japanese immigration from Hawaii) was exposed, the Japanese gov’t was so embarrassed that it was eager to make amends. It responded by agreeing to continuous passage legislation which required cheap labourers from Japan to start their trip to Canada from Japan, their home country, not Hawaii. This legislation was applied to India also. The Sikhs like to say they were singled out unjustly, but the truth is that continuous passage legislation was a clear attempt to curb cheap labour, reduce economic hardship for Canadian labourers, and to stop immigration fraud.

All of this fraud, the displacement of Canadian workers and the apparent inability of the federal government to end it combined in the decision to refuse entry to most of the Komagata Maru passengers.

As one Vancouver Sun columnist (Daphne Bramham) has put it, there was little difference between the Komagata Maru incident and the landing of several Chinese ships off the coast of Vancouver Island in 1999. Both were illegal landings and gov’t officials were right to stop them. It is absurd now for Canada to be apologizing to the Sikhs—just as it would be for Canada to apologize to China 100 years from now for sending back most of the Chinese aboard the ships that landed on Vancouver Island in 1999.

If some Sikhs want to play the apology game, let’s remind them of all the refugee and immigration fraud some of them have recently committed (so well demonstrated by the  Laibar Singh case). Let’s also remember the turmoil some of them have caused in Canada’s labour market as a result of immigration, in our refugee system as a result of the notorious Singh Decision, and in our legal system with the Air India bombing.

The major purpose of the demands of some Sikhs for a Komagata Maru apology is to make Canadians feel that Canada is guilty of a crime. According to these Sikhs, the only way Canada can compensate is to maintain or increase current senselessly-high immigration levels.

The truth is that many Canadians think that if someone should be apologizing, these people should be the ones to apologize to Canada. And the best way they can do that is to stop demanding that Canada cater to their ridiculous whining.

The more sensible Sikhs should help them and Canada to achieve this goal.