Nearly 102 years after the steamship Komagata Maru with 376 passengers from India was sent away from Canada due to discriminatory laws, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offered an apology over the episode in parliament as direct descendants of the original voyagers watched.
In his speech on Wednesday, Trudeau said: “I apologise, first and foremost, to the victims of the incident. No words can fully erase the pain and suffering they experienced. Regrettably, the passage of time means that none are alive to hear our apology today. Still, we offer it, fully and sincerely.”
Trudeau expressed the government’s official regret over discriminatory laws that were in place in 1914. At that time, the Continuous Passage Regulation mandated immigrants arrive in Canada directly from their home country, which was impossible for those travelling from India.
Officials refused to allow the Indians in, though they were British subjects just like other Canadians. Only 20 passengers who previously lived in Canada were allowed to disembark.
Trudeau also apologised to the descendants, of whom nearly 20 were in attendance, viewing the session from the Speaker’s Gallery in the House of Commons. Trudeau said, “Just as we apologise for past wrongs, so too must we commit ourselves to positive action – to learning from the mistakes of the past, and to making sure that we never repeat them.”
As he spoke, Trudeau often looked directly at several descendants who were in the Speaker’s Gallery. “He looked us in the eye,” said Jaswinder Singh Toor, president of the Families of Komagata Maru Society. Toor described the speech as “very moving”.
Trudeau singled out his cabinet colleague Harjit Sajjan, the minister of national defence, pointing out that he was previously “the commanding officer of the British Columbia Regiment Duke of Connaught’s Own – the same regiment that once forced out the Komagata Maru”.
He said, “A century ago, the minister’s family might well have been turned away from Canada. Today, the minister sits beside us, here, in this House.”
As Trudeau sat after his speech, Toor rose briefly and thanked the Prime Minister on behalf of the descendants and all Indo-Canadians for keeping his promise to deliver an apology in Parliament.
Trudeau’s speech was followed by remarks from Rona Ambrose, leader of the opposition Conservative Party, and those of other parties. Ambrose pointed to the original apology delivered in 2008 in Surrey, British Columbia, by then Prime Minister Stephen Harper. “We cannot change the past but we can demonstrate Canada has changed,” she said.
New Democrat leader Thomas Mulcair described the incident as “racism, plain and simple”.
Among those watching the proceedings in Ottawa was Naveen Girn, who curated several events and exhibitions in Vancouver related to the centenary of the incident in 2014. He described Trudeau’s speech as “very poignant and heartfelt”.
In 1914, the passengers of the Japanese steamship had a standoff with authorities after it arrived at Vancouver from Hong Kong. Nearly all the passengers were Sikhs from India. On July 23, 1914, the resistance was overcome and the ship was escorted away from Vancouver by a British cruiser and sent back to India.
On its arrival at Budge Budge near Kolkata, British police boarded the vessel and attempted to arrest the leaders of the passengers who they considered to be insurgents.
In a resultant riot, 19 passengers were killed and more than 200 arrested in what came to be known as the Budge Budge Riot.