Komagata Maru

In the early 1900s, a few thousand Asians, mostly Sikh, immigrated to the U.S.A and British Columbia coast. Upon settling abroad, these individuals noticed that their wages were higher than those in their home countries. When they informed their families in India, many breadwinners were interested in emigrating to Canada to financially aid their families living in impoverished living conditions.

After finding out about their intentions of achieving financial stability through Canada’s economy, the Canadian government attempted to prohibit non-white immigration to Canada in 1908. In particular, they imposed two conditions to restrict such immigration. Firstly, they required that all immigrants that arrive in Canada must have arrived through a continuous journey from their country of citizenship. Secondly, they required that Indian immigrants, in specific, must have a minimum of $200 upon their arrival in Canada.

In response to these provisions, activists rioted and protested heavily. They spent countless hours lobbying for Indian immigration to Canada. Finally, their efforts paid off in November 1913. On this date, a Canadian judge ruled against the deportation of 38 Punjabi-Sikhs who hadn’t met these newly-set requirements. The judge, however, found flaws in the clauses of the regulations. Therefore, the laws were overruled, and the Punjabi-Sikhs were able to stay in Canada. This ruling was considered a milestone because it ignited hope in the passengers of the Komagata Maru regarding their planned journey to Canada in 1914.

Shortly after, however, the Canadian government rapidly re-wrote immigration regulations to close the preexisting loopholes in the provisions. It was now even more difficult to find loopholes in the amended regulations. This was only three months before the departure of the Komagata Maru from Hong Kong to Vancouver (January 1914). This ship carried a total of 376 passengers, which included Punjabi Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus. Although they were fully aware of the obstacles, the passengers thought that they would convince Canada to allow their entry.

May 22nd, 1914, may be considered as one of the darkest days of Sikh-Canadian history. This was the arrival date of the Komagata Maru ship at the coast of British Columbia, where the passengers received a rather hostile welcome. Upon the ship’s arrival, only 20 returning residents or passengers with rare cases were granted entry into Canada. The rest of the passengers were expected to return. Despite a shortage of food, the passengers decided to stay on the ships because they were determined to enter. The Canadian government employed several tactics to force the ship to leave. For example, they limited the water and food supply to the ship severely, and passengers would sometimes have to go without food and water for up to 48 hours. The Canadian government even planned to employ Canadian officers to steer the Komagata Maru back to India.

Despite the hardships, the passengers did not give up. With the help of Vancouver’s Sikh community, they decided to retaliate against the Canadian government by hiring a lawyer named J. Edward Bird. Unsurprisingly, the Canadian government did everything within their power to deter Bird; they averted him from having private interviews with the passengers and also forced him to present his case to five judges instead of one. Unfortunately, on July 6th, Bird lost the case, and the passengers of the Komagata Maru were not allowed entry into Canada. On July 23rd, the ship made its return back to India.

When the passengers returned home, there were very dangerous consequences laid out for those who were suspected of going against the British. There were high levels of distrust between the British officials and the passengers of the Komagata Maru because the British authorities thought they were rebellious. As a result, arguments erupted, and the British officials ordered a massacre, which took the lives of 20 people, 16 of which were passengers. Over 200 of the surviving passengers were imprisoned. Gurdit Singh, the shipping leader, was faced with allegations of being the prime reason for the shooting. He went into hiding but ultimately surrendered.

In today’s era, the Komagata Maru serves as a valuable lesson for Canadians. It highlights the discrimination against non-white immigrants that took place in Canada, as well as the prejudice that the Sikh community suffered. Moreover, it teaches Canada that regardless of a person’s background or reasons for settlement, the country should be more open to a diverse population. The fact that Canada has made an official apology for the Komagata Maru incident portrays just how far it has come in its journey of acceptance and inclusion of non-white immigration and settlement in Canada. Furthermore, due to incidents like the Komagata Maru, Canada has considerably loosened its immigration laws, allowing for more diversity in the country. As a result of this ethnic diversity, Canadians have become more accepting and tolerable of non-white immigrants. As a matter of fact, today, we are expecting over a million new immigrants to Canada from several countries!

Also, the twenty Sikhs who originally were able to enter Vancouver have established successful families and businesses, playing a pivotal role in introducing Sikhism in Canada. Economically, the Sikh-Canadians worked jobs that helped the Canadian economy prosper. Socially, the Sikh-Canadians brought awareness of Sikh culture in Canada, initiating the concept of diversity. It is a proud fact that today Canadians have become extremely open-minded to diversity, which is shown through several aspects of the government and population.