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Empire on trial

Mewa Singh, played by Harwant Brar, with prosecutor
On this day, January 11, in 1915, the murderer Mewan Singh was hanged by the neck until dead, for the murder of Canadian immigration official William C. Hopkinson.

What Canadians and Vancouverites don’t know is that Mewan Singh's name is legend as a martyr in the Sikh community, adorning the Ross Street Temple to this day.

This past weekend, on the site of the old Vancouver Courthouse, spell-binding history played out.

A play, The Undocumented Trial of William C. Hopkinson, written and directed by Paneet Singh, re-enacted in re-imagined form Mewan Singh's criminal trial, at which the unrepentant accused gave a full confession and was sentenced to hang.

In a stroke of brilliance the play is staged in a preserved courtroom in the very courthouse where both the murder and Mewan Singh’s subsequent trial and sentencing took place. 

Only Paneet Singh's play depicted the larger narrative, a story that Mewan Singh himself gave to the court in 1914, but which took over 100 years to truly be heard in the very building where the murder and trial took place. 

It’s a story of colonial toadying and a corrupt government official’s reign of terror against a tiny minority. Through extortion and a murderous campaign conducted by spies he controlled, Hopkinson held his boot on the throat of this vulnerable community.

What no one knew was the secret Hopkinson carried; a secret that drove his merciless hatred.  

When the Komagata Maru sailed into port in May, 2014, causing panic in the far reaches of Ottawa, he stomped.

Just weeks after the Komagata Maru was expelled in July, on Hopkinson’s orders an informant opened fire in the local Sikh temple on 2nd Avenue and Burrard Street, injuring five and killing two.

That mass shooting, directed against a small hated minority by a government agent with the full force of the British Empire behind him, drove Mewan Singh to take the law into his own hands. On October 21, he shot Hopkinson to death in full view of witnesses in the rotunda of the old Vancouver Courthouse (now the Vancouver Art Gallery), the very building where, weeks later, he would be sentenced to death.

101 years after that original trial, that historic murder trial was re-enacted, and Hopkinson’s secret finally told, but no spoilers here.

That members of Vancouver’s Sikh community took full possession of an old Vancouver courtroom to direct European Canadians in a re-enactment of this century-old trial for a largely South Asian audience was itself riveting political theatre.
The resplendent trappings of Empire were on full display; the royal coat of arms, the elaborate high-mounted Rattenbury-designed judge’s bench, the oak panelling throughout, all the symbols of a faded power that once held the globe in its thrall.
But none could outlast that patient and implacable master; Time. 
And they could not outlast the will of living Sikh Canadians to bear witness and bend a once-mighty empire under the weight of a feather-light production of a small and fleeting play.
A hundred and one years is a long time, but not long enough. We’ll be where we need to go when European Canadians line up to see this incredible story, and teach it in the textbooks of our schools.
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