Prime Minister Trudeau to offer apology for Komagata Maru tragedy

As we approach the anniversary of one of Canada’s darkest days, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is preparing to formally apologize in the House of Commons for the Canadian government’s decision to deny entrance to a ship carrying hundreds of South Asian immigrants in 1914.

More than a century ago, on May 21, 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 on July 23. The ship returned to Kolkata, India, where at least 19 people on board were shot and killed while many others were jailed indefinitely.

“We failed them utterly,” Trudeau said earlier this week at a celebration marking the Sikh holiday of Vaisakhi on Parliament Hill. “As a nation we should never forget the prejudice suffered by the Sikh community at the hands of the Canadian government of the day. We should not, we will not.”


In 2014, Canada Post commemorated this pivotal moment in Canadian history with a booklet of six international-rate stamps marking the 100th anniversary of the Komgata Maru tragedy. Released in connection with Asian Heritage Month, the stamp recognized the significance of the incident and allowed Canadians to reflect on their history as well as on the contributions Indo-Canadians made and continue to make to the country. A first-day cover illustrated the stoic passengers aboard the steamship that arrived in Vancouver Harbour in 1914. Affixed with the Komagata Maru international-rate stamp, the cover was cancelled in Vancouver.

The Komagata Maru left Hong Kong carrying 376 passengers from British India to the Dominion of Canada. When the ship arrived, the Canadian government refused to allow 352 of the migrants – mostly Sikhs – from disembarking because of a 1908 law called the Continuous Passage Act. Until it was changed in 1947, the law 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 round about way of denying Indian immigration.”

Canada Post also released this first-day cover with its 2014 Komagata Maru issue.

Canada Post also released this first-day cover with its 2014 Komagata Maru issue.

After months of legal battles, the courts upheld the law and ordered a Canadian naval ship to escort the Komagata Maru into international waters. 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 Columbian government voted to apologize for the treatment of the passengers on the ship.

Three months later, 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. The right thing was … like the Chinese Head Tax.”

Toor was referring to Harper’s apology made in the House of Commons in 2006 to the Chinese-Canadian community for the head tax imposed on Chinese immigrants between 1885 and 1923.

Trudeau is expected to offer his formal apology on behalf of the Government of Canada today at 3 p.m. in the House of Commons.

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