The Komagatu Maru stamp is a bit out of the ordinary, since rather than commemorate a source of Canadian pride, it reminds us of a period when we failed to live up to the ideals we profess. A century ago things were different in many ways but also very similar. Canada was a haven for those seeking a better life, and they came in record numbers. Some 400,000 immigrants were welcomed to Canada in 1913, a record that has not been matched since. The government of Canada was an active player, seeking to open up the vast agricultural resources of the Canadian prairies.
Most of these new Canadians arrived in Halifax and for a good reason. The new citizens being sought were overwhelmingly from Europe. The truth is, the government not only took pains to recruit Europeans, but worked just as hard to limit the number of immigrants arriving from all parts of Asia. The irony is that, in 1914 Canadian citizenship as we know it today did not exist. People born in the country were considered British, and that was listed on their birth certificates. It gave native-born Canadians an advantage, since they could easily move to Britain if they chose. Ironically, while the government actively recruited Europeans who were not British citizens, it discouraged immigration from India, where most of the population were classed as British, or as British-protected, a classification extended to citizens of independent Indian principalities.
There is no doubt that it was not Canada’s greatest hour.
Admittedly, when the Komagatu Maru arrived in Vancouver it was a direct challenge to a system designed to be exclusionary. As such, it was probably doomed to failure from the outset. A century ago the Canadian population was not as understanding as today and there was no outcry when the Canadian military was called on to send the ship back where it came from. We also have to admit that some of the passengers were on the wrong side of the law. India was chaffing under British rule and nationalism was growing. When British authorities tried to arrest some of the passengers in India a riot broke out and 19 people lost their lives. Today, they are remembered in India has heroes of nationalism.
It reminds us that Canada was once a very different place for minorities.
The Komagatu Maru incident can sit alongside the Ukrainian Canadian internment of the First World War, and the internment of Japanese Canadians in the Second World War, as black marks in our history. Today, we need not be ashamed, but we should be willing to look at our past, make apologies for wrongs done, and use the lessons learned to build on our goal of a good society.