“Mr Speaker, today I rise in this house to offer an apology on behalf of the government of Canada for our role in the Komagata Maru incident”, Canada's Prime Minister said in the House of Commons on Wednesday.
On May 23, 1914 a Japanese steamship, the Komagata Maru, arrived at Vancouver port in Canada with 376 passengers. The passengers, mostly Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus, were turned away from the port after a two month struggle to be allowed entry into Canada. They were escorted out by the Canadian naval cruiser HMCS Rainbow and forced to return to India.
A Canadian law of the time, the Continuous Passage Act of 1908, forbade arrivals in the country of those who had not made a "continuous journey" from their nation of birth or citizenship. The Komagata Maru had stopped over at Hong Kong first. The law was seen as a way to restrict the entry of, among others, Indians, because it was nearly impossible to make the long journey without any stops.
According to a report in the Washington Post, “In a challenge to the rules, the Komagata Maru, chartered by a Sikh businessman with ties to an influential Sikh political party in the Americas, steamed across the Pacific. Its arrival in Canada was anticipated by doom-mongering local headlines, which warned of an impending 'Hindu invasion'.”
The ship was formally ordered out on July 19 and, on its return to Kolkata, the British authorities swooped down on the “radicals”, resulting in the death of 19 passengers and multiple arrests. The incident is considered a longstanding source of injustice among members of Canada's South Asian community.
“Canada does not bear alone the responsibility for every tragic mistake that occurred with the Komagata Maru and its passengers, but Canada's government was without question responsible for the laws that prevented these passengers from immigrating peacefully and securely, for that, and for every regrettable consequence that followed, we are, sorry,” Trudeau said.
Trudeau's apology comes eight years after the Liberals pledged to acknowledge the incident. In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper had apologised for the incident to a crowd in Surrey, British Columbia, which has a large Indian population. His apology was immediately rejected, however, and members of the Sikh community demanded that the apology be made in the House of Commons.
Harbhajan Singh Gill, of the Komagata Maru Heritage Foundation, said the apology should be followed up with a greater focus on educating children about historic cases of discrimination. "We shouldn't forget about it, but we need to learn about it," he told CTV News.
Gill said the Komagata Maru incident should be taught in schools, along with other discriminatory issues from Canada's past, including Japanese internment, the Chinese head tax and First Nations residential schools.
“Let's make sure this doesn't happen again,” he told CTV News.
In 2014 Canada Post had released a stamp commemorating the 100th anniversary of the incident and to draw attention to Canada’s former exclusionary immigration policy.