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.