Lessons from 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.

Image from "Continuous Journey"

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.

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