Madam Speaker, what an honour it is today to rise in my place to speak on such an important issue. This is the first time that I have addressed the Komagata Maru incident of 1914 in this place, but I did have the opportunity to address this issue in the Manitoba legislature. This is a very important issue to many of my constituents. Kalgidhar Darbar, Singh Sabha, and Sikh Society are three gurdwaras which many of my constituents visit on a weekly basis. I have had many discussions over the years about this tragedy which took place on the shores of B.C. so many years ago.
The minister made reference earlier to the importance of education. We also believe we need to promote education on this issue to make more Canadians are aware of this tragic event that took place in Canada's history. To that end, as we are debating the issue today, the leader of the Liberal Party is in Vancouver and will be visiting the Komagata Maru museum.
This issue has been brought up in the past. I thought I would highlight a few of the political thoughts on the issue from the Liberal Party's perspective and then go into the history of what took place.
It is important to recognize that the issue of the apology was first brought to the legislature by Ruby Dhalla and other individuals, such as Sukh Dhaliwal and Navdeep Bains. It was implied within that motion that the Prime Minister stand in his place in the House of Commons and apologize on behalf of all parliamentarians and the government. In fact, it was on April 2, 2008 when Ruby Dhalla, the former MP for Brampton—Springdale, tabled Motion No. 469, which states:
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 was passed by the House of Commons and received unanimous support from all members of the House. The expectation at that point was to have a formal apology delivered by the Prime Minister inside the House of Commons.
On May 23, 2008, the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia unanimously passed a resolution, which states:
Be it resolved that this Legislature apologizes for the events of May 23, 1914, when 376 passengers of the Komagata Maru, stationed off Vancouver harbour, were denied entry by Canada. The House deeply regrets that the passengers, who sought refuge in our country and our province, were turned away without benefit of the fair and impartial treatment befitting a society where people of all cultures are welcomed and accepted.
Many would agree that this is the type of apology that would be most appropriate to be heard inside the House of Commons, ideally put forward by the Prime Minister of Canada.
On August 3, it is important to note that the Prime Minister did appear at the 13th annual Ghadri Babiyan Da Mela, which is a festival in Surrey, B.C., to issue an apology for the Komagata Maru incident. In response to the motion calling for an apology from the government, he stated, “Today, on behalf of the Government of Canada, I am officially conveying as Prime Minister that apology.”
Many members of the Indo Canadian community were appreciative of that apology, but there were many others who wanted an apology to be presented in the House of Commons.
At the time, the secretary of state, now the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, stated, “The apology has been given and it won't be repeated”, thus settling the matter for the federal government. We believe that the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, the person who made that statement, is wrong and that he should acknowledge the need for us to open the issue, as we are doing today, and ask the Prime Minister to apologize in the House.
I made reference to the fact that I actually had the privilege to be a member of the Manitoba legislature on May 13, 2008, when this very issue was raised there. It was brought forward in the form of a resolution, which states in part:
Therefore be it resolved that the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba call upon the Federal Government to apologize for the tragedy of the 1914 Komagata Maru incident;
I spoke to that resolution and I voted in favour of it. The intent of the resolution, as far as most of my constituents and I were concerned, was that the federal government in Ottawa would make that apology inside the House of Commons. I must say that those individuals I represented back then are part of the riding of Winnipeg North. I have had the double pleasure, if I can put it that way, to have represented this issue from both a provincial perspective and federal perspective.
I talked about the importance of there being a historical and educational component to this. There is no shortage of information about this incident on the Internet. One of the sites that I truly appreciate is vancouverhistory.ca archives. It really highlights the incident. I will quote from that source:
On May 23, 1914 a ship called the Komagata Maru--normally used for transporting coal--arrived at Vancouver and anchored in Burrard Inlet. She carried 376 Indians: 12 Hindus, 24 Muslims and 340 Sikhs, British subjects all, and people who had come to make a new life in Canada. (In this article “Indians” means “people from India.”)
The arrival of the Komagata Maru had a convulsive effect on the city. There was already deep-seated prejudice against non-white residents in the area, mostly Chinese and some Japanese. Anti-Oriental riots had occurred as recently as 1907. That was also the year 901 Sikhs had arrived in Vancouver aboard the Canadian Pacific steamer Monteagle. Many white residents--particularly those who felt their jobs were threatened--decided the new arrivals must be prevented from getting off the ship.
They had a lot of official sympathy. The federal government was pressuring steamship companies to stop selling tickets to Indians. In 1907 Ottawa passed a bill denying Indians the right to vote. They were prohibited to run for public office or serve on juries, and were not permitted to become accountants, lawyers or pharmacists. The provincial government had passed laws specifically intended to discourage their immigration. They had to have at least $200 on their person to enter British Columbia--the average Indian earned about 10 cents a day--and they had to have come via direct passage from India.
The Komagata Maru had not left from India. She had departed April 4th, 1914 from Hong Kong with 150 passengers, picked up another 111 in Shanghai four days later, 86 more on the 14th at Moji in Japan and a final 14 at Yokohama. Then she headed to Canada.
The ship’s journey was intended as a direct challenge to BC’s exclusionist laws. She had been chartered by Gurdit Singh, an affluent Hong Kong businessman.
Word of the ship’s approach reached Canada and newspapers picked up the story. The Province newspaper headlined its report “Boat Loads of Hindus on Way to Vancouver.”
We know, of course, that was not the case. Obviously, there were a number of individuals, more than just Hindu, who were on the boat.
The article continues:
(To white Canadians, it seems, all Indians were Hindus.) Other headlines referred to a “Hindu Invasion.”
Indians who already lived here began to gather and discuss how to help the new arrivals.
On May 23, seven weeks after she left Hong Kong, the Komagata Maru arrived in Vancouver.
Canadian and BC authorities were waiting for her. They refused permission for the passengers to leave the ship, saying it had not arrived via direct passage from India and most of the passengers did not have the $200 required to enter British Columbia. They repeated their demand that the ship leave. The passengers refused.
They were denied food and water, but local supporters managed to supply the men, women and children aboard the ship. Desperate, the passengers seized control of the vessel. Attempts by local mobs to expel them were met by a hail of bricks from the people aboard. (One of those bricks—made, incidentally, in Japan—is preserved at the Vancouver Museum.)
Vancouver mayor Truman Baxter organized an anti-Asian rally, and the first speaker was the prominent politician H.H. Stevens. “I have no ill-feeling against people coming from Asia personally,” he told the crowd, “but I reaffirm that the national life of Canada will not permit any large degree of immigration from Asia...I intend to stand up absolutely on all occasions on this one great principle—of a white country and a white British Columbia.” Stevens' speech was followed by “thunderous applause.” In June a board of inquiry found all the passengers inadmissible. But without supplies for the return voyage, the ship would not leave.
The Vancouver Maritime Museum picks up the story: “In the early morning hours of July 19, 1914, Sea Lion, with 35 specially deputized immigration officers, armed with rifles borrowed from the Seaforth Highlanders, and 125 Vancouver Police officers, approached Komagata Maru to force the vessel from Vancouver harbour. The enraged passengers resisted any effort to board their ship. Manning the rail, an armed group shouted and threatened to board the tug if she made fast. Nonetheless, Sea Lion's captain brought her in close, grappled and then tied on to Komagata Maru. Passengers and police then battled, as one man with an axe chopped at Sea Lion's line. Finally, as a gunman aboard the ship opened fire on the tug, the line was cut and the tug retreated ‘looking as if it had run under a coal chute.'”
Finally, the new Royal Canadian Navy—in its first official task—was called in. Its ship, an elderly training vessel, HMCS Rainbow, entered Burrard Inlet July 21 and trained its six-inch guns on the Komagata Maru. (This was the first appearance of an RCN vessel in Vancouver.)
On July 23, 1914—exactly two months after she had arrived—the Komagata Maru was forced to leave the city. Some 20 of its passengers who already had resident status had been allowed to disembark. The more than 300 others had to return.
It goes on. I would encourage members to do some research. What I found most interesting in the article is in regard to the tragedy that followed.
The article goes on to state:
On September 26, 1914 the ship, with its passengers now having been aboard for a miserable four months, approached Calcutta. A British gunboat stopped the ship and held the passengers as prisoners. Then they were taken to a place called Baj Baj, a Calcutta suburb, and told they were being sent to Punjab on a special train. “Many of the passengers,” says one website www.sikhpioneers.org about the incident, “did not want to go to Punjab. They had business to attend to in Calcutta, some wished to look for work there, and most importantly, the passengers wanted to place the Guru Granth Sahib, which they had taken with them on their journey, in a Gurdwara (Sikh place of worship) in Calcutta.”
The Guru Granth Sahib could be described as the scripture of the Sikhs. They hold the book in great reverence and treat it with the utmost respect.
The British officials refused this request and repeated their insistence that all the passengers would be put on the train to Punjab. The passengers rebelled and began to march toward Calcutta. They were forced back to Baj Baj and ordered to board the ship again. Led by Gurdit Singh, they refused. A police officer attacked Singh, but was stopped by another passenger. Then gunfire broke out. Twenty passengers were killed, another nine were wounded.
I found this story to be of great interest. I have a much better appreciation in terms of Canada's past. We need to recognize that we have made mistakes. This is a classic example of how it does not take much for the Prime Minister of our country to stand in his place inside the House of Commons and make that formal apology. For me, it is only a question of time before we see that happen, whether it is the present Prime Minister or, hopefully, a Liberal prime minister if the government refuses to do it. We are committed, as a political entity, we recognize what has gone wrong and we want to make that formal apology.
I look at this issue as one that is hard to believe when we reflect on the facts of the past. It crossed all political parties, as well as business leaders and labour leaders. It is hard to comprehend how the ordeal in itself could have happened in our country, the country that we love so much.
I began my comments in terms of many of my friends who, when I attend the different Gurdwaras, I call brothers and sisters from within and, in particular, the Indo-Canadian community, the people who have been to Punjab and those who emigrated from Punjab. They are now great Canadians who have children and they want to ensure their children are aware of this.
However, this goes beyond the Indo-Canadian community. This is about our past, our history. One of the ways in which we can learn from our history or get a better appreciation of our history is to pick up on the whole educational file. As I made reference to earlier, the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, who is in Vancouver, made note of today being a special day and is hopeful that the government will see the merit in passing this resolution. He is making the effort to go out to the Komagata Maru museum. I think we should all make an attempt to go to the museum because we could all benefit.
As members of Parliament, we have the opportunity through mailers and householders to communicate what took place back in 1914 to our constituents, and I encourage people to do just that.
It is a very important file. For me personally, it is a little ironic to a certain degree, but more so a privilege to have been able to talk about this issue both inside the Manitoba legislature and now today inside the House of Commons.
Earlier today I asked the government if it would be prepared or when it would be prepared to make that formal apology inside the House. The Prime Minister has said that he has already apologized once, and the current Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism says that is all that is necessary and that, as far as he is concerned, the issue has been put to rest.
For those individuals who believe what the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism is saying, I would recommend that they talk to members of the Indo-Canadian community. They will find that there is support for an official apology to be made on the floor of the House of Commons. This is where the legislation that caused the problem back in 1914 became law. I think there would be a great deal of satisfaction from not only within the Indo-Canadian community but people outside of the community who would welcome the apology from—