House of Commons Hansard #127 of the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was seniors.

Topics

Opposition Motion--Komagata Maru Incident
Business of Supply
Government Orders

10:05 a.m.

NDP

Jasbir Sandhu Surrey North, BC

moved:

That, in the opinion of the House, the government should officially apologize in the House of Commons to the South Asian community and to the individuals impacted in the 1914 Komagata Maru incident, in which passengers were prevented from landing in Canada.

Mr. Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the member for Marc-Aurèle-Fortin.

Today I rise in support of the NDP motion calling on the government to officially apologize in the House of Commons to the descendants, the South Asian community and the individuals impacted by the 1914 Komagata Maru incident, in which passengers were prevented from landing in Canada.

Next week, May 23 will mark the 98th anniversary of the arrival of the Komagata Maru in Burrard Inlet, Vancouver. Today I am asking all members of this House to vote in support of this motion. The South Asian community should not have to wait a century for an official apology for this tragic event. The tragedy of the Komagata Maru marks a dark chapter in Canadian history. The South Asian community has waited far too long for a dignified apology in the House of Commons.

The journey of the Komagata Maru was one of tragedy. The passengers left their homes to make a new life in Canada, the land of opportunity. What they did not realize was that Canada was not the land of opportunity for all, but only for some. The tragedy was one of several incidents in the early 20th century involving exclusion laws that were put in place to keep out immigrants of South Asian origin. It was a well-known secret. The “continuous journey” was a racially motivated regulation, the same as the Chinese head tax that did immeasurable harm by keeping South Asians out of Canada. At the same time, Canada was accepting massive numbers of immigrants. In fact, 400,000 immigrants came to Canada in 1912 alone, a figure that remains unsurpassed to this day, almost all of them coming from Europe. The Komagata Maru carried 376 passengers. Of them, 340 were Sikhs, 24 were Muslims and 12 were Hindus. They were all at that time British subjects.

The passengers were prevented from disembarking while the ship remained in Burrard Inlet for two months. The men, women and children aboard the ship were denied basic necessities such as water and food. The conditions on the ship worsened on a daily basis and the people aboard the ship suffered greatly. Everyday Canadians, at great risk to themselves, took food to the ship during those two months. In the end, only 20 passengers were admitted to Canada since the ship had violated the discriminatory exclusion laws. The ship was turned around and sent back on July 23, 1914. After its arrival in Calcutta, now Kolkata, on September 27, 1914, police fired on the passengers and 19 were shot dead. The rest were imprisoned or kept under village arrest.

I am an immigrant. I came to Canada 32 years ago to have a better life here. I came here with the same hopes as the people who were on board the Komagata Maru, and I have had incredible opportunities. Being elected to this House to represent my community of Surrey has been the greatest honour and opportunity of a lifetime for me. What if I had endeavoured to make that journey to Canada in the first half of the last century? I too would probably have been turned away. I would have been like those passengers on the Komagata Maru. These policies were racially prejudiced and they were wrong. My community and the whole of the South Asian community deserve a dignified, formal apology in this House for this tragedy.

I have spoken to many Canadians across this great country of ours on this issue. For 17 years I have been fighting for justice for the Komagata Maru incident, along with my good friend and colleague Sahib Thind, who is the president of the Professor Mohan Singh Memorial Foundation of Canada.

In 2006, we urged the Prime Minister to make an apology in the House of Commons. I was on the stage with the in Surrey in 20Prime Minister08. We were expecting the Prime Minister to announce the date of an official apology in the House of Commons. However, a few days before the event we learned that the Prime Minister would be apologizing from the festival stage. We advised the Prime Minister's office that this would be inappropriate and that the community would see this kind of apology as disrespectful.

The Prime Minister's statement in the park was immediately rejected by thousands at the event and those who heard about it. Many felt disappointed and insulted. The current Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism said at that time that the apology had been given and it would not be repeated. This added insult to injury.

The minister went on to say that the turning away of the Komagata Maru was different from other incidents, such as the Chinese head tax. The Komagata Maru tragedy, like the Chinese head tax, was an injustice that happened due to racially prejudiced Canadian immigration laws that were designed to exclude Asian people from the largest wave of immigration Canada had ever experienced. The Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism dismisses the Komagata Maru tragedy as one incident and refuses to acknowledge the continuous journey policy that was in place for 39 years. The Komagata Maru tragedy is a symbol of these policies that were in place to prevent people of South Asian origin from immigrating to this country. Again, I want to emphasize that these policies were in place from 1908 until 1947. That makes it 39 years that the exclusion policies were in place.

Even now, there is no transcript or written record of the statement the Prime Minister gave in the park and the Prime Minister's office refuses to provide one. How can the Conservatives think this is acceptable? Without an apology in Parliament, there is no official record of what the government has done. That is unacceptable. South Asian Canadians deserve to have a respectful acknowledgement of this historic wrong. By refusing to formally apologize for the Komagata Maru incident, the Conservatives have essentially created two levels for apologies for historic wrongs. That is unacceptable.

We support the steps taken by governments over the years to offer respectful and dignified apologies, such as the apology for Canadian Japanese internment camps and the apology to Chinese Canadians for the head tax. In apologizing for the Chinese head tax, the Prime Minister stressed that it was a “grave injustice that we are morally obliged to acknowledge”. The Komagata Maru incident highlights the grave injustices that occurred against people coming from South Asia.

Recently, the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism was out in my community celebrating the contributions by South Asians to Canada and its economy. Photo ops do not cut it and homilies do not cut it. An official and dignified apology is what is required. I urge the Prime Minister to reconsider and make a dignified apology in the House. An announcement in the park is not an apology. My generation and the next generation of South Asian Canadians are waiting for a wrong to be made right. The suffering and loss of lives cannot be set right, but a formal apology is part of the healing process.

In pursuit of a better life, Komagata Maru passengers risked everything. When they arrived on our shores, our government, in ultimate cruelty, turned them away because they were not the right colour or religion. New Democrats are respectfully requesting, in the strongest possibly way, that the Prime Minister officially provide closure for the trauma this has caused in the South Asian community. Let the Prime Minister finally apologize in a dignified way in the House so that the process of healing and reconciliation can begin.

Opposition Motion--Komagata Maru Incident
Business of Supply
Government Orders

10:10 a.m.

NDP

Alain Giguère Marc-Aurèle-Fortin, QC

Mr. Speaker, as I understand it, despite the story of that unfortunate crossing, racist laws were still in effect after 1914. If I am not mistaken, they persisted in Canada until 1947, after the Second World War.

Can my distinguished colleague give us some historical background about how those laws were repealed?

Opposition Motion--Komagata Maru Incident
Business of Supply
Government Orders

10:15 a.m.

NDP

Jasbir Sandhu Surrey North, BC

Mr. Speaker, there is no doubt that we live in more tolerant society today than in 1914. In 1914, these discriminatory laws were put in place to restrict people of South Asian origin from coming to Canada, even though at that time they were British subjects. Canada was under the Commonwealth, as were the South Asian countries that we are talking about here under British rule at that time.

It took 39 years to abolish these discriminatory laws. The South Asian community has been waiting for 98 years for an official, dignified apology in this House so the healing process can begin.

Opposition Motion--Komagata Maru Incident
Business of Supply
Government Orders

10:15 a.m.

NDP

Jinny Sims Newton—North Delta, BC

Mr. Speaker, I want to thank my colleague from Surrey North for bringing this forward into this House. I know he feels very passionately about this and has worked on this file which is more than a file, it is a life's work for him, to have this apology. There are other people in the community who I have met, like our dear friend, Sahib, who has also worked very hard.

My question to my colleague is, what is it going to take for the Canadian government to bring closure to this black spot in our history that has not been addressed by any government, be it Liberal or Conservative?

Opposition Motion--Komagata Maru Incident
Business of Supply
Government Orders

10:15 a.m.

NDP

Jasbir Sandhu Surrey North, BC

Mr. Speaker, my colleague from Newton—North Delta has done great work in our community over the years, and continues to do that work.

It has been 98 years. Over the last 17 years, I have been across this country, talking to many Canadians. I have talked to descendants groups and other activist groups involved in the community. I have talked to grandchildren of the passengers who were on board the Komagata Maru.

This is not about money. Nobody in the South Asian community wants any sort of money from this. It is about a respectful apology. Everywhere I went there was only one thing the community requested over the years. The community asked for a respectful way to close this very dark chapter in our history, and that is by officially apologizing, recognizing that incident in this House so the healing process can begin.

Opposition Motion--Komagata Maru Incident
Business of Supply
Government Orders

10:15 a.m.

Peterborough
Ontario

Conservative

Dean Del Mastro Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister and to the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs

Mr. Speaker, as you would know, Canada does not have a perfect record when it comes to our tolerance and acceptance of cultures.

In fact, we made many mistakes as a young country. As a member of my father's family, I am a member of the Italian community, immigrants to this country who were here during a dark period. During the Second World War we interned Italian Canadians and other Canadians. These were not foreign citizens, they were Canadian citizens who were interned.

More than 20 years ago, then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney apologized. What was missing from the Italian community, as we had this debate just a couple of years ago, was not the apology. The apology was made, as it was in this case, by our Prime Minister. I am proud that our Prime Minister sought to do that. What was missing for some members of the Italian community was not the apology but the acceptance of that apology.

Canada has expressed its sorrow for what occurred. Why does the member feel that the acceptance has not been given?

Opposition Motion--Komagata Maru Incident
Business of Supply
Government Orders

10:15 a.m.

NDP

Jasbir Sandhu Surrey North, BC

Mr. Speaker, I have talked to thousands of people throughout Canada about the Komagata Maru over the last 17 years.

A political announcement in a park is not an official apology. An apology is a dignified way of recognizing our past wrongs. Yes, we live in a more tolerant society today. The community wants, to put this dark chapter to rest, a dignified apology in the House, so we can begin the healing process and the reconciliation process. That is the voice of the South Asian community.

Again, I urge my Conservative colleagues to vote for this motion so that we can provide closure for the South Asian community.

Opposition Motion--Komagata Maru Incident
Business of Supply
Government Orders

10:20 a.m.

NDP

Alain Giguère Marc-Aurèle-Fortin, QC

Mr. Speaker, this story prompts us to honour our duty to remember. Remembrance is the only way for us to understand our past and prepare for our future. Remembrance helps us promote and protect law, democracy and justice. Our duty to remember calls on us to consider this dark chapter in our history, pass judgment on it, apologize openly and clearly, recognize our wrongdoing and invite those who were wronged to join us in building a better Canada.

Some historical background is important here because this event did not happen by chance. It happened against the backdrop of a specific society: Canada in 1914.

In 1914, Canada and India were both British colonies. We were all British citizens. Everyone held the same citizenship. At the time, that community was made up of barely 4,700 people, barely 1% of the population. It was a small community that got its start in 1897 when Indian soldiers arrived in Canada and decided to stay here and put down roots. The community was organized but very small.

At the time, anti-Asian xenophobia was pronounced in Canada, and the Indian community was not the only target. Xenophobia also cost the Japanese and Chinese communities dearly.

There was therefore a strong feeling of xenophobia toward these people who, let us remember, had the same citizenship as us. They were British citizens.

This xenophobia was not new. In 1907, the Vancouver Trades and Labour Council formed the Asiatic Exclusion League. It lobbied to curb what it called the yellow peril—Asian immigration. This council was even responsible for a race riot. On September 7, 1907, some people's businesses and assets were vandalized. Many people were injured. This type of incident is called a pogrom. On September 7, 1907, there was a pogrom in Canada.

At the time, the Laurier government established a commission of inquiry under the direction of the then deputy minister of labour, William Lyon Mackenzie King, the future Prime Minister. He came to a very sad conclusion: Indians were not made to live in Canada because they were accustomed to a tropical climate and had other customs that were vastly different from ours. We were far from inclusive.

This report led to a racist law and decrees. Decree 920 prohibited people who were not coming directly from the country in which they had citizenship from settling in Canada, and decree 926 required all Asian immigrants to have at least $200 in their possession.

In 1907, it was not common for people to have $200 in their pockets, particularly if they were from a country as poor as India was at that time. Exploitation, misery and famine were prevalent there. The most recent famines in India occurred only a few years ago.

This measure was accompanied by measures imposed on Indo-Canadians by the Government of British Columbia at the time. Indo-Canadians did not have the right to vote. It was decided that they did not have the right to vote in either provincial or federal elections. In addition, they were prohibited from working in professional occupations. They could not be lawyers, pharmacists or accountants.

In 1908, this desire not to have any members of the Indian community in the country even led the Canadian government to invite all members of the Indo-Canadian community to leave Canada and go to British Honduras. People knew full well that the living conditions in British Honduras were not particularly good. They declined the offer, and rightly so.

In 1913, there were some attempts to weaken this law.

The law was declared ultra vires, because the use of the term “Asian origin” could prevent a British colonist and his children born in India from coming to Canada. The government addressed this issue immediately by replacing “Asian origin” with “Asian race”. This was the first time that an exclusion was made based on race in Canada.

This was the context in which the Komagata Maru arrived at the Port of Vancouver on May 23, 1914. Canada had been informed of the vessel's impending arrival and had decided, by decree, to deny these people the right to enter Canada. Under the pretext that there was already an overabundance of unutilized labour—this was in 1914, right before the First World War, when all the men would be mobilized—a decision was made to prohibit the labourers, workers and artisans from getting off the boat, before they had even arrived.

Understandably, when artisans and labourers are prohibited from immigrating to Canada, they are left with few choices.

The 376 passengers arrived in despicable living conditions. As soon as they arrived, they were incarcerated in the very boat they arrived in. They were not allowed to land.

The premier of British Columbia at the time, Richard McBride, declared that British Columbia should remain white. He was crystal clear. People who were not white were not welcome. People who were not Christian were not welcome.

In terms of individual justice, this is a very sad story. The people were incarcerated on a boat without any judgment or decree. They were presumed guilty and incarcerated, no questions asked.

What was the Canadian government's approach to reviewing the immigration files? It essentially applied the law to a group. It selected a few individuals, judged them and applied the sentence to everyone. The migrants were not given individual hearings or individual trials. They were judged as a group, not on their individual merits, but those of another. Our country's most natural and most fundamental rules of law were trampled on.

In the end, Canada had to right this wrong. Failing to honour our most basic rights was unacceptable.

As a result of bad faith in the application of justice, only 24 of the 376 individuals were allowed entry into Canada. What a joke. The others were sent back to India where pent-up frustration led to a riot that caused 25 deaths.

This is a black mark on Canada's history. It must be made right because Canada is a democratic country. I am very proud to be a member of this Parliament and I invite all members to share my pride and to help right this wrong.

If we fail to right such wrongs, repeated errors will become systemic flaws. We will not fail in our duty. We will right past wrongs and build our future. We will remember our past shortcomings as we build a future in which we respect those who were not respected in the past.

Opposition Motion--Komagata Maru Incident
Business of Supply
Government Orders

10:30 a.m.

NDP

Jasbir Sandhu Surrey North, BC

Mr. Speaker, over the last 17 years, I have had a chance to talk to many Canadians, especially the descendants of the passengers from the Komagata Maru. The stories they have heard from their grandfathers and great-grandfathers still pains those descendants. They have repeatedly told me that they are looking for closure from the Canadian government to heal the wounds that are still open.

How can we put closure to this? What can the government do to provide closure for the families?

Opposition Motion--Komagata Maru Incident
Business of Supply
Government Orders

10:30 a.m.

NDP

Alain Giguère Marc-Aurèle-Fortin, QC

Mr. Speaker, Canada has a black mark on its history, like all nations with a history.

Canada is a free, democratic and forward-looking country. Nevertheless, we must look into the eyes of the victims' descendants and give them an official apology, not as individuals, but as a community, as a people, as a country. It is vital that we apologize to these people; they are entitled to an apology. It does not cost a lot to apologize and it is an excellent way to defend democracy.

Opposition Motion--Komagata Maru Incident
Business of Supply
Government Orders

10:30 a.m.

Liberal

Kevin Lamoureux Winnipeg North, MB

Mr. Speaker, back on April 2, 2008, a former member of Parliament, Ruby Dhalla, moved the following motion:

That, in the opinion of the House, the government should officially apologize to the Indo-Canadian community and to the individuals impacted in the 1914 Komagata Maru incident, in which passengers were prevented from landing in Canada.

That motion passed unanimously. The government has been very much aware of the incident and aware of the need to apologize.

Why does my colleague feel that the government has been so reluctant to give a formal apology inside the House on this issue?

Opposition Motion--Komagata Maru Incident
Business of Supply
Government Orders

10:30 a.m.

NDP

Alain Giguère Marc-Aurèle-Fortin, QC

Mr. Speaker, we cannot rewrite history. But we can study it and make amends.

I am not really interested in who was responsible for what at the time this motion was moved. What I do want to know is what we are going to do today. And I believe that we can apologize. That is called being mature.

Opposition Motion--Komagata Maru Incident
Business of Supply
Government Orders

10:30 a.m.

Conservative

Costas Menegakis Richmond Hill, ON

Mr. Speaker, I listened with great attention to the speech from the hon. member for Marc-Aurèle-Fortin.

I also heard the question from the hon. member from the Liberal Party. Suffice it to say that I found it quite peculiar coming from a member of the Liberal Party given the number of years that the Liberal Party governed Canada and never even visited the location. It was a serious matter that was never addressed by the Liberal Party. However, that is not what I wish to speak to at this moment.

I have a question for the hon. member for Marc-Aurèle-Fortin this question. A short few years ago, the right hon. Prime Minister of Canada, the Prime Minister today, actually visited the community and personally apologized to the community. We understood at the time that it was very public. It was welcomed by the community and it got closure. Here it is being revisited again today.

Is this a political ploy? Why is the apology by the Prime Minister of Canada, which was made directly and personally to the descendants in British Columbia, not sufficient?

Opposition Motion--Komagata Maru Incident
Business of Supply
Government Orders

10:30 a.m.

NDP

Alain Giguère Marc-Aurèle-Fortin, QC

Mr. Speaker, Stephen Harper's personal apology is a good thing. He apologized as an individual. However, we are not asking for an individual to make a personal apology, but for the leader of the country to speak on behalf of the nation and apologize on behalf of the people and the Government of Canada.

Opposition Motion--Komagata Maru Incident
Business of Supply
Government Orders

10:30 a.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Bruce Stanton

I would remind the member to refer to his colleagues by their title or the riding they represent.