On May 23rd, 1914, the Komagata Maru arrived in Vancouver’s Coal Harbour carrying 376 passengers from Punjab, India all seeking asylum in Canada. The Komagata Maru passengers were subjects of the British Empire and many had fought for Britain. “We are British citizens and we consider we have a right to visit any part of the Empire,” said Gurdit Singh, the Hong Kong-based Sikh businessman who had chartered the Komagata Maru. However, Canadian immigration authorities prohibited the passengers from landing and no-one was allowed on or off the ship. For the passengers, this caused considerable hardship from lack of food and water, access to medical attention, and lack of communication with their families. Their legal counsel, J. Edward Bird, was denied the right of access to his clients for weeks.
Why? Canada’s Continuous Passage Regulation of the time required that immigrants to Canada arrive by a single, direct journey from their country of origin. This policy was viewed as a roundabout means to exclude Indian immigration and to preserve - in the words of a popular song of the time - “White Canada forever.” The law was challenged in Canada’s courts. However, after being stranded for two months, on July 23, 1914, the Komagata Maru was forced to leave. When the ship arrived in Budge Budge, India on September 29th, riots broke out and many of passengers were killed by the British Indian police.
The Komagata Maru incident of 1914 is one chapter in a long struggle to create a Canada that resists racism. Archived documentation including Harper’s apology is available here: http://komagatamarujourney.ca/incident. The Story of the Komagata Maru, a co-production between India’s Salman Khan Films and Toronto’s First Take, will begin shooting next year in India, Britain, Hong Kong and Canada.