Published in The Vancouver Observer, May 23rd, 2014

The South Asian community in British Columbia had been stripped of their right to vote, and many among them were fighting for equality and they saw the detention of the passengers on board the ship as an extension of their own legal struggle for equality.

On May 23, 1914, a chartered Japanese ship arrived in Vancouver harbour. On board were 376 immigrants from British India, fellow British subjects of Canadians with the British Empire. The passengers were challenging the Empire to keep its promise of equality, fair play and justice. Two months later, with the exception of 22 who could prove prior Canadian domicile, the would-be immigrants were turned away and escorted out of Vancouver harbour by a Canadian warship, HMCS Rainbow.

The Komagata Maru “incident” was not, as is claimed repeatedly, a dark chapter in Canadian history, nor was it incidental; it was a manifestation of a “white Canada” policy—a set of selective legislations, regulations, and agreements that effectively prevented non-European (i.e. undesirable) immigration to Canada for a century. The Komagata Maru brought to light this legalized white supremacy that framed the nation-building project.

Creating a “white Canada” was a two-pronged approach, the other being the on-going colonization and dispossession of aboriginal peoples, coupled with a set of mechanisms to culturally assimilate the surviving populations, while keeping them apart on reserves.

The Komagata Maru held up a mirror to Canada, asking: what kind of country did the Dominion want to become? By turning away the would-be immigrants, the judiciary agreed that Canada did have the right to discriminate against fellow British subjects on the basis of race.

The then leader of the opposition, Sir Wilfred Laurier, perhaps summed it up best in a parliamentary debate on Asian immigration in October 1914:

“The people of Canada want to have a white country, and certain of our fellow subjects who are not of the white race want to come to Canada and be admitted to all the rights of Canadian citizenship … These men have been taught by a certain school of politics that they are equals of British subjects; unfortunately, they are brought face to face with the hard facts when it’s too late.”

In sum, browns are not equal to whites; browns, even if they are fellow British, subjects are less. Laurier could not have encapsulated the official policy of Canada any better.

The ‘hard facts’ are that from 1867 to 1967, Canadian immigration policy was designed to build a “white man’s country.” In 1908, it was under Laurier’s mentorship and direction, that Mackenzie-King wrote and devised the continuous journey regulation of the Immigration Act. The regulation made no reference to race or nationality, it required all immigrants to come to Canada by continuous journey from their country of birth or nationality.

The open secret, known to Canada and its imperial overlords in London, is that this regulation was aimed at South Asians coming to Canada from British India. Canadian Pacific ran a very successful shipping line from Vancouver to Calcutta. As legal scholar Audrey Maclin has noted Canada compelled Canadian Pacific from stopping this shipping line, making it impossible to sail to Canada from British India via a continuous journey.

This subterfuge was seen essential for the British Empire. Canada’s sister colony, Australia, had announced a “White Australia” policy, which had caused great unease in the Punjab. The British’s worst fear was an uprising in Punjab, the main recruiting grounds of the British Indian Army. This army has been called the “the sword arm of the British Empire,” and it was likely if Canada openly discriminated against people from British India, the troops would rise against their British commanders and the Indian Empire would be lost.

The South Asians who had been arriving in Canada were Punjabi, many of them veterans, and the others had clan if not familial ties to the Army. The imperial authorities agreed whole-heartedly, “… that Canada must remain a white man’s country is seen necessary on moral and political grounds.”

Audrey Macklin once again points out that the continuous journey regulation, was more absolute in its goals of keeping out South Asian than the Chinese Exclusion Act. In my view, this regulation is also a prime example of how systems are designed to exclude people, seemingly fair on the face of it, with the true intention hidden between a nudge and wink.

Over six thousand South Asians previously landed and established on shore are often forgotten in the commemorative accounts of the Komagata Maru. The South Asian community in British Columbia had been stripped of their right to vote, and many among them were fighting for equality and they saw the detention of the passengers on board the ship as an extension of their own legal struggle for equality.

Their lawyer, J. Edward Bird, embodied all that is claimed as “Canadian values” today—a belief in equality, human rights and the rule of law. Bird had a history of taking on cases for Asian and aboriginal clients, but by choosing to try to land the immigrants on board the Komagata Maru he had crossed a line and received death threats.

While the history of the Komagata Maru is largely unknown by most Canadians, including those of South Asian origins, the Canadian state seems to have not forgotten the successful lessons learned.

In 2002, Canada signed the Safe Third Country agreement with the US, which stipulates that all refugees must come directly from their country of citizenship, and if they come via a safe third country, they must apply from asylum there. The wording of this 2002 agreement is remarkably similar to that of the “continuous journey regulation” of 1914. The consequences, as noted by Amnesty International, have been a dramatic drop in the numbers of refugee claims via the USA.

Another striking similarity lies in manner in which the Tamil migrants aboard the MV Sun Sea were treated by the authorities in August 2010. The passengers on the Komagata Maru clearly in Canadian waters, were deemed to be on the “border of Canada” and were detained on the ship. Similarly those arriving on the Sun Sea were also detained; not on the ship but at CFB Esquimalt and processed as if at the “border” while all the times being Canadian soil. Both, in effect, were contained in a state created legal limbo. The media were barred from direct contact with both; both were denied access to legal counsel, and in this vacuum, government raised questions about the validity of their claims and framed them as security threats.

These events and the government responses represent a dog whistle to those who stridently oppose multiculturalism and “mass immigration” and call for a closing of the gates.

It is an often-repeated idea that Canada changed when it finally opened its gates in 1968. This begs the question, why were the gates closed and who did they keep out?

The gates kept out among many others the passengers aboard the Komagata Maru, the story of their encounter with Canada being fundamentally about race. The very idea of Canada was fundamentally about race, and 100 years after the turning away of the Komagata Maru, we have to ask ourselves how much have things really changed and in what ways have they remained the same?

The commemoration of the arrival and turning away of the Komagata Maru reminds us that the question of race was central to not only who was let in to the country but also who was seen as being Canadian. This very framework continues to haunt the country a hundred years later even as immigration continues to play a central role in building Canada. It would be a mistake to relegate the Komagata Maru to the past.

As the great American writer James Baldwin reminds us, “If history were past, history wouldn’t matter. History is present… You and I are history. We carry our history. We act our history.”

So how does Canada want to enact its history when dealing with race and immigration?