It was over 100 years ago that the Komagata Maru set sail for Canada from Hong Kong. The almost 400 passengers on board – most of whom were from Punjab – had boarded the ship with dreams of a better life in Canada. After a punishing trip across the Pacific Ocean, they arrived in Vancouver ready to build new lives in a country whose promise had convinced them to leave all they had ever known behind. Sadly, this promise was never realized.
Had I been on that boat in 1914, I would not have been allowed to enter Canada. An exclusionary policy from the government of the day would have sent me back to India alongside several hundred others.
I knew very little about the Komagata Maru incident prior to the late 1990s when I began researching the history of Indian immigration to Canada. The Canada I had moved to in 1981 – though not without its problems – had been a welcoming one. Like many, I did not know the trials faced by this earlier generation of Indian immigrants. I came to see the incident as a dark chapter in Canada’s history but one that we could learn from. Under the guidance of the Punjabi Arts Association of Edmonton, I wrote and performed in a play about it to show both how far we have come and how important it is to understand our mistakes.
Today, Prime Minister Trudeau will stand in the House of Commons to formally apologize for the Komagata Maru incident. He will do so in the same chamber where the laws which barred the ship’s passengers from entering Canada were passed. And in doing so, he will allow for a true healing process to begin for the families of those humiliated by the experience and those who perished upon their return to India.
The apology in the House of Commons is something our government committed to during the election and I am proud of Prime Minister Trudeau’s leadership in fulfilling this commitment. Along with the apology we need to make a concerted effort to be honest and forthcoming about our country’s history. The saying goes that those who do not learn from history are bound to repeat it and that is never more true than for discriminatory policies. Fear of the “other” is incredibly dangerous and we need to be sure to learn from our historical failings.
For me, today’s apology is a time for reflection. The Canada of today is a markedly better and more inclusive place than it was in 1914. We know that diversity is one our country’s great strengths and not something to be feared. We have come a long way toward building an inclusive society and an honest understanding of our country’s history is essential to continuing this work as we move forward.