October 3, 2020—by Anne Murphy, Ali Kazimi, Hugh Johnston
This summer the Vancouver Mural Festival commissioned a mural: “Taike-Sye’yə,” curated by Naveen Girn, and created by Keerat Kaur and Alicia Point (Musqueam, Stó:lō, Kwantlen). The mural occupies 4000 square feet on the sides of a federal building, from which the name of politician H. H. Stevens (1878–1973) was ceremoniously removed. The mural portrays a hitherto unknown story that Musqueam paddlers took supplies to the would-be immigrants on board the Komagata Maru.
The documentation for the project reveals that the proposal received approval as well as financing and was executed in just over four weeks. Two federal cabinet ministers, Carla Qualtrough and Harjit Sajjan, flew to Vancouver to inaugurate the mural, and the Un-Naming media event received widespread national attention.
This seems straightforward, except for the fact that this new story which has now entered the public record has not been verified by scholars and historians. A small part of Canadian history has been changed without any verification of the evidence; this fact in itself must be a cause for concern for all of us.
There are two aspects of the multiple claims made through this project that are the most troubling, and we focus on this here. Firstly, it is claimed now as fact that Indigenous people helped the passengers on the Komagata Maru in their two month-long period of detention in Vancouver harbour. This is a crucial point. Immigration officials in an unprecedented move had not allowed the passengers to disembark, and the processing of the would-be immigrants that would have taken minutes on shore was stretched out for days on the ship. Caught in this deliberate bureaucratic slow down the passengers often found themselves at the edge of starvation. A letter from the passengers to their lawyer, J.E. Bird, on the 9th of July 1914, for example, notes “We are suffering much from hunger & thirst.” The “Shore Committee,” comprised of members of the local South Asian community, did organize provisions for the Komagata Maru and did get assistance in delivering these supplies at times, mostly from Japanese Canadian fishermen.
There is, however, no record of any Indigenous participation in the delivery of provisions to the Komagata Maru in the extensive primary archival materials that document it: immigration department records, detailed British surveillance reports, newspaper accounts, the memoirs of the lawyer for the passengers Edward Bird, and the biography of the man who chartered the Komagata Maru, Gurdit Singh. If indigenous paddlers took supplies to the ship, how did they get past the armed blockade? If the passengers received supplies from their indigenous supporters, then why did they continue to make claims of thirst and starvation? It is claimed by the Mural Festival’s curator (who is called a historian but has no such training) that this claim has emerged in oral histories. This is where a professional, scholarly eye is necessary. Oral histories that emerge after a century need to be balanced by reference to other sources. These stories have not circulated for long, and that is striking because the arrival and subsequent turning away of the Komagata Maru is part of a highly scrutinized part of modern Canadian history, particularly in the last two decades. Such evidence can be appreciated as a possibility, but not as a fact.
Secondly, the project embraces a kinship term in Punjabi, “Taike,” that means “from the family of the father’s elder brother.” This term was used in BC by Punjabis for Indigenous People and is being understood by the project as signifying cordial relations between Indigenous people and South Asians. Unfortunately, this is a complete misrepresentation of the term. As Kamala Nayar noted in her 2012 book The Punjabis in British Columbia: Location, Labour, First Nations, and Multiculturalism, “from the 1960s through to the early 1990s, Punjabis began to attach the negative stereotypes of First Nations people to the word taike and used it in a derogatory manner when communicating among themselves.” (pg. 183). According to one of her narrators: “Taike is used in a looking-down way. The Punjabis say it because then others will not understand who they are referring to.” (Ibid., 187). Nayar’s book details the complexity of relationships in northern British Columbia between Indigenous people and Punjabis, the latter of whom occupied a complicated position as settlers and simultaneously as people who were subject to discrimination themselves. It is a book worth reading. This is not a simple issue.
When asked who had verified the story of Indigenous assistance to the passengers on the Komagata Maru, Minister Carla Qualtrough’s office put the responsibility on the shoulders of the two emerging artists, stating that they had “consulted historians who verified through their research, which included oral history, that Indigenous people helped the passengers who were on board the Komagata Maru ship in 1914. These historians stated the Indigenous people delivered food and water to the passengers on the ship.”
Over several email exchanges with Adrian Sinclair, the Festival’s Director of Engagement, a few things became clear: first, no historians were consulted, hence the story is not verified; second, other than oral accounts collected by the curator, no additional research was conducted.
The Ministers, and the artists, were misled into understanding that historians had stated this event had taken place. This of course raises the question, what happens now? Does this become “fact”?
Part of this argument was presented in a piece by Ali Kazimi, that was published in the online portal The Conversation. There has been no response from the city of Vancouver, nor has there been any response from the federal ministers. Dr. Anne Murphy has exchanged multiple emails with the Festival, to encourage them to address both of the issues raised here; after some amendments, full changes have not been made. Adrian Sinclair has issued a statement on behalf of the festival, which was posted in the comments section of Kazimi’s online piece and on social media. He chose to ignore all the questions raised and frames his support for the existing narrative in personal term, as simply an issue of “standing by” the people who made the claims. He also claims, in his statement, that the VMF website had acknowledged the lack of written documentation regarding these claims, when there was no such acknowledgement (despite Dr. Murphy’s suggestions that this be added). Even the statement misrepresents the facts.
If the way in which oral evidence relates to the existing factual record does not matter, if the research and credibility of scholars is irrelevant, then we have arrived at a time in Canada when any historical narrative is possible and can be inserted in the official record for political gain.
Anne Murphy is Associate Professor in the Department of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia and is founder (in 2019) and Lead of the Interdisciplinary Histories Research Cluster at UBC, a role she continues with Associate Lead Chris Lee (English/Asian Canadian Asian Migration Studies) in the 2020-2021 academic year. She served as Director of the Centre for India and South Asia Research in the Institute of Asian Research/School for Public Policy and Global Affairs from 1 July 2019 to 31 August 2020, and Co-Director from 2017-2019.
Dr. Murphy’s research interests focus on early modern and modern cultural representation in Punjab and within the Punjabi Diaspora, as well as more broadly in South Asia, with particular attention to the historical formation of religious communities and special but not exclusive attention to the Sikh tradition.
Hugh Johnston is a professor emeritus of history at SFU, where he taught for 36 years. For 11 of those years, he was the department chair. Since retirement, he has enjoyed teaching in the Adults 55+ Program at SFU.
He has written about British and South Asian migration and settlement, 18th-century exploration of the Pacific Northwest, the history of British Columbia, and higher education in Canada. His books include British Emigration Policy 1815–1830: Shovelling out Paupers (1972); The Voyage of the Komagata Maru: The Sikh Challenge to Canada’s Colour Bar (1979); The Four Quarters of the Night: the Life Story of an Emigrant Sikh (1995); and Radical Campus: Making Simon Fraser University (2005).