I suspect that some eyebrows will be raised when Canada Post rolls out the 2014 stamp marking the Komagata Maru incident. It wasn’t one of our shining moments in history; in fact, quite the contrary. For those of you who don’t know, in 1914, a ship carrying immigrants from India was refused admission to Canada and forced to return back to India. The move had been made in full awareness of the laws, as a form of challenge to government rules, but also probably with the knowledge that most of the immigrants would be turned down.
On return to India, the ship was intercepted by British authorities that sought to detain many, and a riot occurred. At that time the government of Canada, while encouraging immigration from Europe, was attempting to limit immigration from Asia through a number of complex and exclusionary rules. Although the rules had mostly been ruled invalid in court, they remained in place for many years. That is the short story. In fact, the whole incident was mixed up with the politics of India’s burgeoning independence movement, with the injustices of Canada’s laws used to underscore the need for independence.
At a meeting in Vancouver, Indo-Canadians were urged to sell their assets and bring themselves and their money back to India to help spur a rebellion against British rule there. The revolutionary Ghadar Party, which urged violent revolution, was particularly vocal. Politics aside, the story is significant to us today because it points out that this nation, a mere 100 years ago, was capable of institutionalized discrimination.
It is part of our collective past, just as much as the battle against American invaders in 1812, the internment of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War, the liberation of Holland, and the internment of Ukrainian and German immigrants in the First World War. Canada is a great country, and in remembering our great moments, we should not forget our human failures. It seems that history does repeat itself. In 1937, the MS St. Louis, a German ocean liner carrying 937 German-Jewish refugees, was turned away in Cuba, the United States, and Canada. The passengers ended up in Europe.
These two incidents were not among the proudest in Canadian history, but to ignore them is the worst kind of revisionism. All of these things happened generations ago. Today we have come to embrace Canada as a multicultural society. The boat containing my family did not arrive in Canada until more than 40 years after the Komagata Maru was turned away, yet this is my history as a Canadian. What we choose to remember is almost as important as what we choose to do. Our mistakes of the past constitute a warning for the future.