Komagata Maru apology rejected

Posted by admin on Aug 5th, 2008

Canadian Press. August 4

SURREY, B.C. — An apology from Prime Minister Stephen Harper Sunday for the 1914 Komagata Maru incident in which hundreds of Indians seeking a better life in Canada were turned away has failed to win over Sikh community members. Harper was speaking to a crowd of about 8,000 people in Surrey, B.C., which has a large east Indian community. The prime minister said the event was one “which ended in terrible tragedy” for many on the vessel. He said the apology came after the government passed a motion in the House of Commons to apologize for the incident. “On behalf of the government of Canada, I am officially conveying as prime minister that apology,” Harper said. But as soon as he left the stage, members of the Sikh community rushed to the podium immediately denouncing the apology. They said they wanted it delivered on the floor of the House of Commons.

“The apology was unacceptable,” said Jaswinder Singh Toor, president of “The Descendents of Komagatamaru Society.”

“We were expecting the prime minister of Canada to do the right thing. The right thing was … like the Chinese Head Tax.,” said Toor, referring to Harper’s full apology to the Chinese-Canadian community in 2006 for the head tax imposed on Chinese immigrants who came to Canada between 1885 and 1923.

“Our community . . . is very much disappointed. We have been treated like a second class citizen,” said Toor, whose grandfather was among those who were returned to India on the ship.

Harper’s speech came at an Indo-Canadian festival in a Surrey park with a heavy police presence.

People sat on the lawn under umbrellas while children played on nearby midway rides. But, on either side of the stage sat dark vans. On top of each was a pair of security officers, automatic weapons beside them, scanning the crowd with binoculars.

The Komagata Maru sailed into Vancouver harbour May 23, 1914 with 376 people on board.

The dominion government would not allow the passengers to disembark and the vessel sat in the harbour for two months.

Eventually, the boat steamed back to Calcutta where it was met by police, and 20 people were killed as they disembarked while others were jailed.

In May, the B.C. government issued an apology for the incident.

Many of those aboard the Komagata Maru were Sikhs.

Following Harper’s speech, Sikh community leaders asked the crowd for a show of hands on whether or not to accept the apology. They then announced that the gathering had rejected it.

“The apology has been given and it won’t be repeated,” said Secretary of State Jason Kenney, who was accompanying Harper during the visit.

Later, Kenney’s communications director, Alykhan Velshi, pointed to Toor’s past Liberal ties, and called on Liberal leader Stephane Dion to condemn what he called “disruptive, partisan actions.”

The apology marks the third such reconciliation Harper has made with embarrassing parts of Canada’s past.

On June 11, Harper apologized to aboriginals who suffered abuse decades ago at Canadian residential schools, calling it “an important evolution in Canada’s relationship with our first peoples.”

And, in 2006, Harper issued a full apology to the Chinese-Canadian community for the head tax imposed on Chinese immigrants who came to Canada between 1885 and 1923.

He offered compensation to surviving Chinese-Canadians who paid the tax, as well as to widows and their children.

It is not without symbolism that Sunday’s apology was delivered in Surrey’s Bear Creek Park.

Two teenage boys were found guilty of manslaughter in November 2006 for attacks on two elderly Indo-Canadian men in the park a year earlier that left one of the men dead.

The boys, who cannot be identified because they were 13 and 15 at the time of the attack, had been charged with second-degree murder in the beating death of 76-year-old Shingara Singh Thandi of Surrey.

Thandi was beaten with baseball bats and robbed in a washroom in July 2005. He died in hospital three weeks later.

The youths were also found guilty of aggravated assault and robbery of Mewa Singh Bains, 83.

The Komagata Maru incident highlighted inconsistencies in Canadian immigration policy at the time.

A 1910 Order in Council was passed requiring immigrants to come to Canada by continuous journey from their homeland.

So, Gurdit Singh chartered the Japanese ship Komagata Maru and sold tickets for a continuous journey from the Punjab to Canada.

However, a 1908 Order in Council required all “Asiatic” immigrants to be in possession of $200.

The Indians argued the provision did not apply to them as they were British subjects as India was still a colony.

That July, the ship was ordered to sail but the Indians took over the ship and refused to leave.

On July 19, 125 Vancouver police officers and 35 special immigration agents attempted to board the vessel and were beaten back. Thirty were injured.

However, on July 23, under the guns of the naval cruiser S.S. Rainbow, the Komagata Maru was escorted out to sea and returned to India.

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