The Komagata Maru & The Lessons of History

100 YEARS AGO, the 376 passengers of the Komagata Maru were refused entry into British Columbia by Canadian authorities.  They experienced racism and hostility, hardship and deprivation: they were unable to land, lacked food and water, denied medical care, unable to communicate with their family, and denied access to lawyers.

The passengers were legally entitled to land as British subjects, but Canada had a policy of “White Canada Forever.”  A naval ship was sent to forcibly escort the passengers out of Vancouver harbour to the cheering of mobs that had gathered on the shore.

Now, 100 years later, the story of the Komagatu Maru is being honoured and remembered as a historical event that occurred at a time when “Our country looked very different”.

What is the lesson of history that we should take from that sad episode?

First: There are many today for whom changes are not evident.  The federal Conservative government has made sweeping and controversial changes to the immigration, asylum and refugee system, and the rules for Canadian Citizenship.   Many of these changes are a step backward.   They are discriminatory and amount to modern exclusion (the Komagata Maru was about exclusion).

Second: Too many politicians make nice speeches at memorials and anniversaries such as the centenary of the Komagata Maru or apology for the Chinese head tax or exclusion laws.   These same politicians do not pay enough attention to modern discrimination and exclusion.

The past repeats itself. 

Canada’s acceptance of refugee claims has dropped significantly due to exclusionary barriers.

The civil war in Syria, now into it’s 4th year has produced millions of refugees.  Canada has agreed to accept only 1300 Syrians and has not admitted that number.

In August 2010, 492 Tamil refugee claimants made a three month journey from Sri Lanka to British Columbia.  The claimants – including 49 children and their mothers – were forced into detention centres amidst a national hysteria over “illegals”, “queue jumpers”, and “potential terrorists.”  Many remain jailed, many have been deported.

The Conservative government has made sweeping changes to the immigration and refugee system.

–       Strict laws make It harder to get citizenship and easier to lose it

–       A new refugee system that restricts legal avenues for refugees and mandatory jail for “irregularly arriving” refugees, including children        as young as 16 years

–       A moratorium and quota on sponsorships of parents and grandparents, and reduced quotas for spouses

–       Conditional residency for spousal sponsorships

–       Minimum income to sponsor family members increased by 30%

–       Increase in the number of temporary foreign migrant workers, who are vulnerable to abuse

–       Refugee claimants have had their health benefits, like emergency treatment for life threatening ailments, cut


At a time of reflection to remember yesterday’s injustices, it is vital to stand against those happening today.

Many Canadians have their own family story of escape from persecution and refuge on these shores.   It is a story that is integral to our country’s history and identity.

The Conservatives also amended the law to close the door on most refugees by invoking a “safe third country” rule.   This is eerily echos the “continuous voyage” requirement used to bar the passengers of the Komagata Maru, 100 years earlier.   

Ironically, while regressively restricting immigration and asylum laws, and appeal and judicial review procedures; the federal government negligently permitted the temporary foreign workers program to be terribly abused.   Canada needs immigrants, and immigrants acquire rights and responsibilities, they pay taxes and become Canadians.   Temporary foreign workers are abused, suppress wages and employers do not hire or pay better wages to Canadian workers.   

Immigration may not be at the top of concerns for many Canadians.   The priority for many is jobs and making ends meet.  However, immigration and a fair tradition of asylum is integral to growing our economy and a humanitarian obligation.

“If we do not learn from the mistakes of history, we are doomed to repeat them.”  Santayana.



About Bill Sundhu

Canadian lawyer, Former Judge, Member of Kellogg College of University of Oxford (Masters Degree in International Human Rights Law 2010).
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