On today’s date in 1914, the ship Komagata Maru arrived in Vancouver with 376 immigrants aboard; however, it was not allowed to land under Canadian immigration laws and sailed away two months later.
More than a century ago, the Komagata Maru left Hong Kong for the Dominion of Canada. When the ship arrived, the Canadian government refused to allow 352 of the migrants – all British subjects mostly Sikhs – from disembarking because of legislation known as the Continuous Passage Act.
Until it was changed in 1947, the act required immigrants to enter Canada directly from their country of origin without any stops in between.
“It was an exclusionary immigration policy meant to racially discriminate against South Asians,” said Naveen Girn, a project manager for the 100th anniversary of the Komagata Maru incident. “It required migrants coming to Canada to arrive via a direct passage from the country of origin and because there was no direct passage at that time between India and Canada it was seen as a roundabout way of denying Indian immigration.”
These regulations included a “continuous journey” clause and stipulated immigrants must have $200 in cash—an obligation most found impossible to meet.
After months of legal battles, the courts upheld the law and ordered a Canadian naval ship to escort the Komagata Maru into international waters on July 23. As the First World War had broken out, many passengers were killed or imprisoned by police upon their return to India under charges of carrying out rebellion.
For years, the Indo-Canadian community pressured the Canadian government for a formal apology. Finally, in May 2008, the British Columbia government voted to apologize for the treatment of the passengers on the ship.
Three months later, then prime minister Stephen Harper also apologized during a speech in Surrey, B.C. Despite the apology, many Indo-Canadians denounced it at the time, demanding the apology be made in the House of Commons.
“The apology was unacceptable,” said Jaswinder Singh Toor, president of the Descendants of Komagatamaru Society. “We were expecting the prime minister of Canada to do the right thing.”
In 2014, Canada Post commemorated this pivotal moment in Canadian history with a $2.50 international-rate stamp marking the 100th anniversary of the Komagata Maru incident.
Released in connection with Asian Heritage Month, the stamp recognizes the significance of the incident and allows Canadians to reflect on their history as well as on the contributions Indo-Canadians made and continue to make to the building of Canada. It was issued in six-stamp booklets.
Two official first-day covers – one featuring the ship and another with the people – illustrate the stoic passengers aboard the steamship that arrived in Vancouver Harbour in 1914. Affixed with the Komagata Maru international-rate stamp, both covers are serviced with Vancouver cancellations.
“We’d love this stamp to prompt questions. This is part of Canadian history,” said Harbhajan Gill, president of the Komagata Maru Heritage Foundation. “Even though it was a sad event, Canadians should take away a happy message. We’ve learned from those mistakes and made positive, inspiring change in 100 years. We’re a new Canada, one that treats everyone as equal.”