In May of 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a formal apology in the House of Commons for the 1914 actions of the Canadian government when they refused entry into Canada to nearly 400 British citizens, mostly Sikh men, who had traveled from India to Vancouver on board a Japanese ship called The Komagata Maru. After spending nearly two months in the Vancouver harbor the ship was forced to return to India at naval gunpoint. British soldiers boarded The Komagata Maru upon its arrival in Calcutta and a riot ensued during which twenty passengers died and many were arrested. The Canadian immigration rules at the time discriminated against people from South East Asia, rather favoring immigrants from England, Europe, and the United States. In 1914 British Columbia was home to some 2000 people from India mostly Sikhs from the Punjab who had come to work there. Other citizens who knew very little about India, its historical achievements, religious diversity, or rich culture, worried they would eventually become outnumbered by Indian immigrants. The Canadian government had put all kinds of rules and regulations in place to make it very difficult for people from India to enter Canada but the passengers on board The Komagata Maru claimed the rules didn’t apply to them because they were British citizens. Their pleas were rejected.
I learned about The Komagata Maru because of a current installation at the Winnipeg Art Gallery that is part of our Vision Exchange exhibit. It contains work by Jagdeep Raina an artist from Guelph Ontario who used archival documents from Kashmiri and Punjabian Sikh diaspora communities as inspiration. His mixed media exhibition includes a drawing based on a 1914 photograph of men who had traveled on board The Komagata Maru. He has entitled it Don’t Forget About Us.
In his apology in the House of Commons in 2016 Prime Minister Trudeau said that The Komagata Maru passengers were no different than millions of other immigrants to Canada. They were simply seeking refuge and a better life for their families. They had much to contribute to Canada and we failed them utterly.
During his apology the Prime Minister urged people not to forget the prejudice suffered by the Sikh community in Canada. Jagdeep Raina’s artwork is a good reminder of the Prime Minister’s request. You can read more about the Komagata Maru incident on the website of the Canadian Museum of Human Rights.