On This Day: The Government of Canada Formally Apologizes for the Komagata Maru Incident

On This Day: The Government of Canada Formally Apologizes for the Komagata Maru Incident

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On May 18, 2016, the government of Canada formally apologized for the Komagata Maru incident.

Justin Trudeau made a formal apology in the House of Commons also apologizing directly to the passengers of the ship’s descendants, some of who were gathered in the House of Commons gallery. 

“Canada does not bear alone the responsibility for every tragic mistake that occurred with the Komagata Maru and its passengers, but Canada’s government was without question responsible for the laws that prevented these passengers from immigrating peacefully and securely, for that, and for every regrettable consequence that followed, we are sorry,” Trudeau said.

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What is the Komagata Maru Incident?

On May 23, 1914, the Komagata Maru reached Vancouver’s harbour from Hong Kong and Japan carrying hundreds of South Asian passengers — mainly Sikh, Muslim and Hindu — hoping to settle in Canada as immigrants. However, when they arrived they didn’t receive a friendly welcome. 

Many white Canadians were very hostile towards non-white immigration. In 1908, the Canadian government placed limitations on South Asian immigration. These limitations included the requirement of Asian immigrants having a minimum of $200 to enter the country, or another that required all immigrants to have travelled to Canada via a “continuous journey” from their country of origin. These policies were discriminatory and racially restrictive as nonstop travel from India to Canada wasn’t available. Sikh businessman Gurdit Singh chartered the ship to confront the restrictions, hoping all the passengers could enter the country. 

Immigration officers did not allow the ship to dock leaving the passengers isolated on board, unable to communicate with the South Asian community on shore. The immigration department also refused to supply the ship with food and water except for one time when conditions became desperate. 

Even after the South Asian community hired a lawyer to help them out, the court still didn’t allow the passengers to enter Canada and on July 23, the ship was escorted out by the military.

On September 1914, the Komagata Maru returned to India where British troops thought the passengers were revolutionaries. Around 20 passengers were killed while hundreds more were imprisoned.

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Canada’s Apology

In 2008, the British Columbia provincial government gave a formal apology for the incident and former Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave an informal apology at a Sikh gathering in Surrey, BC. However, it was Trudeau’s apology that was formally recognized. 

“We can never know what your lives would have been like had your relatives been welcome to Canada,” Trudeau said. “The ways in which your lives would have been different, the ways in which Canada would have been enriched. Those possibilities are lost to history…”

As of 2021, there are over 2.5 million South Asian immigrants in Canada.