By Nand Tandan
Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada was booed by a crowd of IndoCanadians in Surrey a few weeks ago when he apologized for the ill-treatment of Indians aboard the ship Komagata Maru. Komagata Maru was a ship commissioned by Indians, mostly Sikhs, to thwart the Canadian rule of direct passage from the country of origin to land in Canada, a rule which was put in place to prevent Indians from coming to Canada. Indo-Canadians booed the Prime Minister because they were not satisfied with an apology to them in a public gathering and wanted him to do so formally in Canada’s parliament.
Komagata Maru is a shameful chapter in the Canadian history and an ugly manifestation of the racist Canadian society of a hundred years ago. The ship carried 397 Indian passengers who wanted to come to Canada, believing that it was their right to do so as citizens of the British Commonwealth. They were met with stiff resistance from Canadian officials who were determined to stop them from landing under an official policy to keep Canada for white people only. Rules were bent and twisted by racist officials to prevent the hapless passengers from landing in Vancouver. The few Indians in Vancouver at that time tried to help the stranded people on the ship but their valiant efforts were frustrated by determined immigration authorities. The ship was forced to turn back, resulting in the death of some of the passengers who never made it back safely to India.
I do not, however, believe that the current Prime Minister of Canada owes any apology for that shameful incident. Passengers of Komagata Maru were ill-treated by the ancestors of present-day Canadians, who had nothing to do with this racist behaviour. Indeed, the current and the previous generation of Canadians has gone to great lengths to produce an immigration system which is free of any racial bias even though some racial prejudices may still manifest themselves in the administration of the program. Most of the people who protested against the Prime Minister had come to Canada as a result of this non-racist immigration policy put in place over the last 40 or so years. Indeed, some of them have likely come by abusing that policy through fraudulent use of the immigration provisions relating to the family and refugee classes. So, they should be grateful to the current leadership of Canadians who have worked to remove racial bias from immigration instead of harassing them with demands for public apologies from the Parliament.
One must learn from the past but one must not live in it. We must be vigilant that Canada never reverts to its racist past. Komagata Maru, along with the pole tax on Chinese immigrant labourers and the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War, remains a reminder of the ugly racist past of Canada. It should be remembered by finding an appropriate place for any material related to these events in our museums, documentaries and films. And let us divert our energies to fight for the issues that matter to present day IndoCanadians and ensure that new Canadians have their qualifications and job credentials respected so that they can contribute to the Canadian society to the best of their potential