Editor’s Pick

01 July 2017
eonard frank / vancouver public library vpl 6231

PASSENGERS STAND aboard the SS Komagata Maru in July 1914, shortly before it was forced to leave Vancouver Harbour and sail for India. The ship had arrived two months earlier, bearing 376 passengers from Punjab. Of these, the only people who were allowed to disembark in Vancouver were the ship’s doctor and his family, as well as 20 returning Canadian residents. The remaining 352 passengers, mostly Sikhs, were not allowed to get off because of Canada’s Continuous Passage regulation, which held that immigrants must “come from the country of their birth, or citizenship, by a continuous journey.” The policy was intended to curtail the flow of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent, since the long journey from there generally involved at least one stop.

The Komagata Maru’s voyage was orchestrated by Gurdit Singh, a contractor who had lived for many years in the Malay States and Singapore. Singh wanted to help Sikhs who sought entry into Canada or the United States, and he believed that, as British subjects, people from the subcontinent were entitled to free movement into other Commonwealth nations. Despite knowing about Canada’s hostile immigration policy towards Asians, Singh chartered the Komagata Maru and began the journey from Hong Kong. He intended to circumvent the laws by bribing a senior immigration official in Canada.

After the ship stood in the harbour waters for two months, the Canadian military escorted it back out to sea, and it eventually made its way back to Calcutta. Hours after reaching India, about 20 of the passengers were killed by gunfire by British troops, and the others were imprisoned for the duration of the First World War. Some passengers managed to escape, including Gurdit Singh, who lived in hiding until 1922, when Mohandas Gandhi persuaded him to surrender. He was then imprisoned for five years.

The Komagata Maru incident has remained in the memory of Indian Canadians, who demanded an official apology for many years. Canada now has a Sikh population that stands at a little under 500,000; there are four Sikhs in the cabinet of the current prime minister, Justin Trudeau. On 18 May 2016, Trudeau, who had made pre-election promises to do so, issued a formal apology for the incident, admitting that the ship was turned away due to discriminatory policies.