Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak today to Motion M-469 introduced by my Liberal colleague, which calls on the Conservative government to 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.
Although some progress has been made, most notably the acknowledgement of this incident by the Prime Minister, the federal government still has not made an official apology. Canada should therefore apologize officially in order to close this sad chapter in Canadian history. In so doing, Canada would recognize the important contribution Indians have made to society in Canada and Quebec. In addition to official recognition, Canada could consider other means of acknowledging this incident, such as a commemorative monument or a museum, because of the tragic outcome.
The federal government has officially apologized for the head tax imposed on Chinese immigrants. Since the Komagata Maru incident is similar, we believe that the government can take the same approach.
Considered in the light of our modern values, the Canadian government's actions in 1914 were reprehensible. For that reason, the Bloc Québécois believes that an apology is warranted. However, other equally tragic events require official apologies. I will mention these events at the end of my speech, but I am thinking in particular of the native residential schools and the 1918 suppression of anti-conscription demonstrators. The Bloc Québécois has always called on the government to officially apologize for these two events.
Let us place this particular event in its historical context. First, in 1908, Canada passed a law that seriously restricted immigration from certain parts of the world. The Canadian government had ordered that immigrants who did not come to Canada by continuous journey—meaning that they did not come directly to Canada from their country of origin—were prohibited from immigrating to Canada. The law also prohibited Asian immigrants from entering Canada unless they were carrying at least $200.
Before the Komagata Maru, there was an incident with the Panama Maru on October 17, 1913. This Japanese ship, with 56 Indians aboard, docked in British Columbia. Seventeen of the Indians were already Canadian residents, but the other 39 Indians were detained in a Canadian immigration hall. This case was brought before the Supreme Court of British Columbia, and a decision was rendered on October 27, 1913. The judgment declared the orders in council relating to the requirement for the possession of $200 invalid because they did not conform to the precise wording of the Immigration Act. The 39 Indian passengers were released from the immigration hall and allowed entry into Canada.
Following this incident, the federal government ensured that the orders in council conformed to the Immigration Act. The government was then able to limit immigration from Asian countries. In short, the government found a legal way to uphold the orders in council on continuous journey and the requirement for the possession of $200 on arrival.
This was the context in which the Komagata Maru incident took place. On May 23, 1914, the passenger ship Komagata Maru arrived in Canadian waters on the British Columbia coast. It was carrying approximately 376 immigrants of Indian origin. Of these 376 immigrants, 340 were Sikh, 12 were Hindu, and 24 were Muslim. The Komagata Maru did not make a continuous journey to Canada. It was chartered out of Hong Kong and stopped in Shanghai, Moji, and Yokohama. Because it did not make a continuous journey to Canada, it was in violation of the existing Immigration Act. Twenty-two of the passengers were considered to be Canadian residents and were allowed to disembark. The remaining passengers had to remain on the ship.
The Conservative government at the time cited legal grounds to deny permission to land to the remainder of the passengers: they had not come by continuous journey from India; they did not possess the specified minimum amount of money—$200; and they were subject to recent immigration regulations prohibiting the landing of labourers at Pacific ports of entry. Although the Conservative government prohibited them from entering Canada, it did not deport them.
In other words, the status of migrant was not defined. A few weeks later, the case of a single passenger was chosen to serve as a test case for all other passengers on board. Ultimately, on July 6, 1914, five judges of the British Columbia Court of Appeal unanimously found that the immigration regulations were legal and valid and, in effect, maintained an earlier deportation order.
After this decision, and after almost three weeks to negotiate the ship’s departure, the Komagata Maru was escorted into international waters by a Canadian warship on July 23, 1914.
In September of that year, the vessel delivered the passengers to Budge Budge, near Calcutta, India, where British officials intended to transport the passengers to the Punjab. The passengers did not want to go to the Punjab region, and a riot ensued; 29 passengers were shot by British soldiers, and 20 of these passengers died. That is what is so tragic about this story.
In the past 50 years, the Indian community has been very active in Canada. In 1951, there were about 2,000 people of Indian origin in Canada. Now, there are some 750,000. According to the 2001 census, there were more than 34,000 people of Indian origin in Quebec, most of them—94%—in the greater Montreal area.
This event is important to the Indian community in Canada. Members of the community now feel that the incident showed that they were second-class Commonwealth citizens. In some families, the story has been passed down from generation to generation, while others heard about it once they came to live in Canada.
Indo-Canadians believe that with an official apology, Canada could right a historic wrong and emphasize the importance of their community's contribution to Canada and Quebec. An official apology would be one way to proclaim that such incidents must never happen again. Things have certainly improved. The Canadian government created the community historical recognition program on June 22, 2006, but neither the Prime Minister nor the government has apologized for this incident. Although an apology has a merely symbolic value, it would be greatly appreciated by the Indian community in Canada.
There have been other times when the government offered an apology, as in the case of the Chinese, for example, as I mentioned earlier. The federal government recently offered a formal apology to the Chinese community for the head tax, because at the beginning of the last century, Chinese immigrants were employed in western Canada, to a large extent in mining, but especially in the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. These immigrants were not necessarily voluntary immigrants, but were cheap labour brought over from Asia. The government apologized for this situation. Thus, we do have a precedent for situations like this. The government could offer an apology to the Indo-Canadian community.
Other apologies are also in order, and the Bloc Québécois recognizes that the government should apologize for the Komagata Maru incident. That is why we support Motion M-469, which seeks to offer a formal apology to the immigrants who tried to enter Canada.
We are delighted to see this willingness to address the worst examples of human rights violations in Canadian history, and to clean up Canada's shameful past.
There are other examples of incidents for which Canada should apologize. In 1918, under a Conservative government, the same government responsible for the Komagata Maru incident, some Canadian soldiers opened fire on a crowd that was protesting conscription. Four people were killed and many were injured. After reviewing the events, the coroner's inquest concluded that the individuals shot by the soldiers on this occasion were innocent victims in no way involved in the riot. It is therefore the government's duty to pay fair and reasonable compensation to the victims' families, but this has yet to be done.
To commemorate this tragic event, a work of art was erected at the very location where these tragic events took place in Quebec City's lower town.
Another example is residential schools. As everyone knows, nearly 150,000 aboriginals suffered through the hell of residential schools.
Many victims have sadly already passed away but an estimated 87,000 survivors are left. It would also be nice if the House of Commons—