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Indira Prahst 


By INDIRA PRAHST, Instructor of Race and Ethnic Relations, Department of Sociology, Langara College, Vancouver

On May 23, 1914, the Komagata Maru arrived in Vancouver. However, its 376 passengers were not permitted to disembark because they violated "exclusionist laws" through the "Continuous Journey Provision of the Immigration Act" which stipulated that all passengers arrive by "direct passage" from their country of origin. Although the passengers were citizens of the British Empire, and should have been granted access to this country, the immigration law was framed subtly, to control Indian immigration.

This is illustrated in the following quote by Mackenzie King (who was deputy labour minister and a future prime minister back in 1908) in justifying the amended act to British representatives: "Canada's desire to restrict immigration from the orient is natural; that Canada should remain a White man's country is believed to be not only desirable for economic and social reasons, but highly necessary on political and nationals grounds."

Indeed the Komagata Maru is a dark chapter in our history. The passengers suffered for almost three months on board the ship and on July 23, 1914, the "Sea Lion" vessel was successful in evicting the Komagata Maru forcing it to return to India where some passengers were killed upon arrival.

However, a bright chapter opened last Monday when Harb Gill, president of the Komagata Maru Heritage Foundation, bought the Sea Lion vessel known as "a ship with a past, present and future" from Rex Kary, co-owner of Living Planet Experiences Unlimited. Some members of the community and the media were invited to board the boat and to share in the good news. Kary told me that the deal was not an easy one to secure with over a dozen offers for the boat and a selective screening process. Gill initially offered one thousand per passenger and closed the deal on two thousand dollars per passenger, buying the boat for $752,000.

I was told by Kary that the ship was worth about $1.2 million and could have been sold for $1.6 million but that would have meant that the vessel leave Canada. When I asked how Kary felt about the sale he replied: "This is a great next step to keeping the history of the Komagata Maru alive and giving it back to the community - we have done as good as we possibly can."

What connection did the "Sea Lion" have with the Komagata Maru past and how can it play a role in preserving this memory in the future? The Sea Lion is a 130-foot boat built in 1905 in Vancouver by the Charles Robertson Shipyard. In 1914, the Canadian government "commissioned" the Sea Lion to turn away the Komagata Maru, which was anchored in Vancouver Harbour. According to a vivid snapshot description about "The Sea Lion's" history from the Living Planet Experiences Unlimited web site: in 1914, "armed immigration officers as well as 125 Vancouver Police officers boarded the Sea Lion and approached the vessel. But the passengers of the Komagata Maru were prepared, raining lumps of coal down onto the Sea Lion. The Sea Lion eventually retreated, her windows broken and covered in black coal dust ... returning four days later with a larger vessel as backup, and successfully evicted the Komagata Maru."

What are the future plans regarding the boat? According to Gill, the long term goal is to have the "Sea Lion" as part of the maritime museum where people visiting, can also learn about the history of the Komagata Maru onboard the vessel. Gill said, "How often we have the museum open depends on how strong the community is behind it. Our foundation has moved a step forward and now it is up to the community if they want to help make it happen."

Part of the plan is to educate the world about Komagata Maru which they hope to achieve possibly with the upcoming Olympics. With the boat as a museum we can "show our history and heritage to the world which is in line with our mission statement of making Komagata Maru an international issue," said Gill.

Why is preserving the memory of the Komagata Maru important? Firstly, the memory of Komagata Maru is kept alive through the symbol of the vessel. A key function of a symbol is to mark a historical tragedy and to both "remember" and "learn" from the past. According to Dr. Karin Doerr from Concordia University in Montreal, who has been working on Holocaust-related issues, it is important to preserve "the culture of commemoration of victimization, and even symbols of tragic events because it shows us how the society deals with these tragedies in contemporary society."

Preserving history matters, according to Jai Birdi, owner of "Fire side café" and chair for the Ending Racism Casteism plenary at the World Peace Forum at UBC. He said: "It is important to reconcile with our past and our sore points so we can move forward in our multicultural society."

Secondly, it allows people to learn what their forefathers experienced such as Baba Puran Singh who was a secretary on board the Komagata Maru (carried on by Attar Singh Toor) and many others who remain a powerful example of the sacrifice, struggle and solidarity they endured. They are indeed historical portraits that can help to inspire youth to learn from the contributions made and to carry on the legacy of their forefathers.

Thirdly, we learn about politics, especially how institutional racist laws have been played out to exclude individuals who have been "racially profiled" and deemed a threat to the cultural fabric of Canadian society. It should help us to focus on what we can do to ensure that the lesson about institutional racism in our immigration laws is not repeated or suppressed in our educational curriculum or in the media.

Lastly, the "Sea Lion" provides a concrete platform for the community at large to be united in promoting the memory of the Komagata Maru. According to Gill, it will be important for our community to get together on July 23, to send a message to the government that "it is you who is telling us we are not together, we actually are together" and there seems to be a general consensus in the community to lobby the government for a formal apology.

Although the Canadian government met with community leaders in December 2006, followed by a report, the fact remains that the government has not issued a formal apology. This has left many people frustrated and trying to rationalize for themselves the underlying motives for this delay. Some of the perceptions expressed by the community are: the government simply does not care, it's a political strategy to hold off until election time, a strategy to stall an apology built on a momentum of divisiveness to further fragment our Canadian society (Chinese Canadians and Indo-Canadians and within the South Asian community) and setbacks caused by the divisions (perceived / real) within the community. Some people have attributed the silence around an "apology' among some Indo-Canadian politicians because their riding is "more to the right" in their ideology and are thus safer to support the status quo. Indeed, there are divisive viewpoints.

Jaswinder Singh Toor, whose father Attar Singh Toor was the son-in-law of Baba Puran Singh, one of the passengers on board the boat Komagata Maru, said: "The fact that they issued an apology for the head tax and not Komagata Maru where people died upon returning is unfair."

The demand for an apology continues into the future and will be addressed at a gathering this Sunday, May 20 from 1 to 3 p.m. at Lumberman's Arch in Stanley Park to commemorate the 93rd anniversary of the Komagata Maru, organized by the Prof. Mohan Singh Memorial Foundation of Canada.

In closing, preserving the memory of the Komagata Maru is what forms part of Canada's unique heritage and it should be part of our formal educational curriculum and taught through books, films and in museums. The exposure of this part of Canadian history can also foster a stronger sense of cultural unity. The "Sea Lion" is an essential part of the "map of historical meaning" about the Komagata Maru and as former SFU professor and founder of the South Asian Education Film Society, Chinmoy Banerjee, said on board the vessel: "It is a concrete basis for keeping alive the memory of the Komagata Maru -without memory there is no community."

Whether the "Sea Lion" will continue its legacy as a vessel of the "past, present and future" only time will tell.

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