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Behind the Komagata Maru’s fight to open Canada’s border Add to ...

Dark chapter in Canadian immigration history included an unsung hero, among the first who can be called a defender of civil rights

Passengers from S. S. "Komagata Maru", 1914. (City of Vancouver Archives)

It was an early Saturday morning, May 23, 1914, when the tramp steamer Komagata Maru sailed into Vancouver Harbour. She had been built in Glasgow in 1880 and had been used by her Japanese owners to transport coal. But for the voyage to Canada, she was refitted with latrines and hundreds of wooden benches for a very different cargo – 376 immigrants from colonial India, most of whom were Sikh veterans of the British Army.

A few hours later, when the ship moved anchor a kilometre offshore from Vancouver’s immigration building at the foot of Burrard Street, the passengers stood ready to go ashore, dressed in their best clothes and bags packed.

“We are British citizens and we consider we have a right to visit any part of the Empire,” Gurdit Singh, a Hong Kong-based Sikh businessman who had chartered the Komagata Maru, told reporters earlier.

Aside from a few dozen who were later deemed to be returning Canadians, the passengers would never make it ashore. Government officials effectively turned the ship into a floating prison.

The “Vancouver troubles,” as newspapers of the day called the Komagata Maru incident, came to represent one of the darkest chapters in Canadian immigration history and descend into violence when passengers hurled coal chunks to repulse a police takeover of the ship to expel it from B.C. waters.

Canada’s only West Coast warship, the HMCS Rainbow, was eventually deployed to settle the argument and force the ship back to India, where 20 of the passengers would be killed by British troops in a riot.

At the heart of the Komataga Maru saga was a high-stakes legal battle involving a fearless Vancouver lawyer who briefly managed to open Indian immigration to Canada for a few months before the ship’s arrival in Vancouver. After Ottawa, backed by widespread popular support, had rewritten the rule book while the Komagata Maru was steaming to the West Coast, J. Edward Bird ultimately lost the fight before a B.C. appeal court under conditions rigged in the government’s favour.

The door was slammed shut on South Asian immigrants for decades to come.

Underneath it all was a complex mix of forces at work: Canadian politicians firmly believing they had a mandate to maintain Canada as a white man’s country, a depressed Vancouver economy, a militant group of B.C. Sikhs agitating for Punjabi independence in India, and a collision between B.C. and federal politics on one hand and Canadian and British politics on the other.

J. Edward Bird, great-grandfather of the author, was a lawyer hired by the South Asian community in Vancouver to defend the passengers aboard the Komagata Maru.

How Bird came to fight for the passengers

J. Edward Bird (1868-1948), my great-grandfather, was born and raised in Barrie, Ont., and studied law at the University of Toronto. In 1896, he moved to Kenora, then Rat Portage, to set up a branch office for the law firm he worked for in Toronto, and in 1901, landed in B.C. when Vancouver had a population of about 30,000. He became involved with the Socialist Party of Canada and was elected to Vancouver City Council in 1908.

“My grandfather was a defender of civil rights at a time when they didn’t really exist – Pierre Trudeau’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms was a long way off,” says Richard Bird, a retired B.C. lawyer and arbitrator, and my father. “He had a kind heart and instinctively acted to defend the equality and dignity of those suffering from abuse of power.”

It was through the Socialist Party that J. Edward Bird developed a relationship with the leaders of B.C.’s Sikh community and provided legal representation for business transactions and immigration cases. He also became the lawyer for the Khalsa Diwan Society, the entity behind Vancouver’s Sikh temple, North America’s first gurdwara and the heart of B.C.’s Sikh community.

Canada's determination to keep the country white

Considering this country's diversity today, the Canada of early the 1900s seems almost unrecognizable. All levels of government and the majority population were determined to keep the country white by keeping Asians out.

On the West Coast in that period, the issue of Asian immigration was electric. A riot broke out in Vancouver in 1907 after a rally organized by the Asiatic Exclusion League turned violent and saw thousands of white supremacists smash windows and loot businesses in Chinatown and Japantown. Canadian immigration officials were also keeping a close watch on B.C.’s highly politicized Sikh population, which included supporters of the North American-based Ghadar party agitating for Punjabi independence in India. Many of them were British Army veterans who felt a strong sense of betrayal by the British, so strong that some burned their old uniforms.

The federal Chinese Immigration Act had for decades limited Chinese immigration through a head tax, and a secret agreement between London and Tokyo capped immigration from Japan. But India posed a challenge for Canadian lawmakers since the senior government in London was sensitive to Canada indirectly stirring up trouble in key part of its Empire.

The solution was to make changes to the Immigration Act in 1908 requiring all immigrants to make their way to Canada “via a through ticket and by continuous journey from their country of birth or origin” and that “all immigrants from Asia must have in their possession $200.” Immigration from India soon slowed to a trickle.

Bird’s view on immigration stood in stark opposition to popular opinion. “The doctrine of a white man’s country is one utterly intolerable especially for the subjects of the British Empire,” he later wrote in an English-language Sikh publication in Vancouver. ”If we allow the Magna Carta to be repealed and set at naught the will of any single section of our people, there remains no reason why the British Empire should exist, since its only title to existence is that it stands for the true principles of British freedom.”

A short-lived victory for the South Asian community

On Oct. 17, 1913, a group of Sikh immigrants arrived in Victoria aboard the Japanese freighter Panama Maru, claiming they had been in Canada before in an attempt to get around the regulations. The immigration board held firm and ordered deportation a few days later. In response, the B.C. Sikh community retained J. Edward Bird to work to overturn the ruling, so he promptly filed a notice of appeal with the Interior Ministry – and also applied for a writ of habeas corpus, arguing that the wording of the Orders-in-Councils that amended the Immigration Act conflicted with the original legislation.

In Rex vs. Thirty Nine Hindus, B.C. Chief Justice Gordon Hunter ruled the “continuous journey” regulations to be ultra vires, or beyond the power of the Act, allowing the immigrants to land in Canada. It was a stunning victory for B.C. South Asians and the news soon spread to India and the rest of the English-speaking world. Sikhs in B.C. wrote to their friends and relatives in India, urging them book passage to Vancouver.

B.C. politicians, however, were outraged and demanded Ottawa take action to prevent a “hindu invasion” as one Vancouver newspaper called it. “I say their civilization is unproductive to the good of the human race as a whole,” Vancouver Conservative MP H.H. Stevens said during a speech to his constituents shortly after the court ruling. Ottawa quickly issued two new Orders-in-Council on Jan. 7, 1914, to strengthen the immigration legislation to better withstand any legal challenge.

Conservative MP H.H. Stevens, centre, being interviewed by reporters on board the Komagata Maru in English Bay, while police inspectors look on. (Library and Archives Canada)

The Komagata Maru is greeted with outrage

When Gurdit Singh, the Sikh businessman who had chartered the Komagata Maru, announced on March 30, 1914, that the ship would sail to Vancouver, Hong Kong governor W.F. May twice cabled the Canadian government seeking direction on whether to hold in port. On April 4, with no word from Canada, Mr. May said the ship was free to leave port, so it sailed to Shanghai, and two ports in Japan, gathering passengers before crossing the Pacific for Vancouver.

Mr. Singh was well aware of the potential trouble awaiting the ship in Vancouver. “If we are deported we will sue the government,” he told an American reporter in Hong Kong, “and if we cannot obtain redress we will come back and take up the matter with the Indian government.”

His passengers aboard the Komagata Maru, however, likely had no idea how inflamed public opinion would be on their arrival or to what lengths immigration officials would go to make sure they never made it to Canadian soil.

The government’s strategy became clear the very day the Komagata Maru arrived in Vancouver. Health screening, a process normally completed within an hour, followed by immigration board interviews of all passengers, dragged on for days. The ship became a prison – no one was allow off or on; food and water began to run low. The passengers' lawyer, J. Edward Bird, was denied the right of access to his clients for weeks.

There are no set of anarchists in Canada like the immigration officials who defy all law and order.
J. Edward Bird

“I can only surmise that the instructions from the department at Ottawa to the immigration authorities here was to delay matters and delay matters and procrastinate and delay until such time as these people were starved back to their original port from whence they came,” he told a meeting hall packed with both South Asians and whites on June 21. “They talk about socialists and anarchists. There are no set of anarchists in Canada like the immigration officials who defy all law and order.”

The confrontation became a sensation in Vancouver and attracted hundreds, then thousands, to the waterfront. Every day there was news – negotiations, legal wrangles, disputes over provisioning the ship, public meetings, House of Commons debates – and every sort of rumour imaginable.

There was widespread concern that J. Edward Bird would win his second immigration court challenge. “The government passes a law and they seem to tremble in their boots for fear that Mr. Bird will say it is unconstitutional,” one letter to the editor said in the Daily Province.

Sikhs aboard the Komagata Maru in Vancouver Harbour in 1914. (Library and Archives Canada)

Court ruling leads to the deportation of passengers

Finally, on June 25, my great-grandfather agreed to the government’s restrictive offer to allow a test case to go directly before the B.C. Court of Appeal, bypassing any lower court judge. “This looked as though the cards had been picked for themselves by the officials and we were left with no alternative but to go to court under these terms,” he later wrote in his unpublished memoir. He then selected a 26-year-old Sikh farmer, Munshi Singh, whom he was forced to interview within earshot of an immigration official, to represent all passengers and presented the same habeas corpus argument he had successfully used a year earlier.

Our fellow British subjects of the Asiatic race are of different racial instincts to those of the European race. In their own interest their proper place of residence is within the confines of their respective countries, not Canada where their customs are not in vogue and their adhesion to them here only gives rise to disturbances destructive to the well-being of society.
B.C. Court of Appeal, July 6, 1914

It was no contest. The appeal was unanimously dismissed on July 6 and deportation orders soon followed. “Our fellow British subjects of the Asiatic race are of different racial instincts to those of the European race,” the court’s decision said. “In their own interest their proper place of residence is within the confines of their respective countries, not Canada where their customs are not in vogue and their adhesion to them here only gives rise to disturbances destructive to the well-being of society.”

Three weeks later, on July 23, the Komagata Maru left Vancouver Harbour, escorted by HMCS Rainbow.

Gradually, a change in policies

With the door closed on immigration, the South Asian population in B.C. decreased. In 1947, B.C. dropped the prohibition against Indian and Chinese voters, and 1962 overt racial discrimination was finally removed from Canadian immigration policy. Since then, tens of thousands of Sikhs have emigrated to Canada and become a key part of the country’s mosaic, disproving warnings of “disturbances destructive to the well-being of society.”

Canada finally apologized for its handling of the Komagata Maru in 2008, but the apology by Prime Minister Stephen Harper created controversy because it was not made in Parliament.

As for my great-grandfather, he received a threat after the appeal court ruling, saying he’d be shot dead if he didn’t drop the case. Then his life insurance company cancelled and refunded his policy, prompting his law partner to arrange for him, his wife and their two young sons to move to the B.C. interior for three weeks until things cooled down in Vancouver. One of his last acts in the case was to repeat his plea to government officials to supply the Komagata Maru with food and water so “that these men be not allowed to suffer further.”

Timeline: Key moments in the Komagata Maru saga

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1869 The first Immigration Act contains few restrictions and makes no distinction on who should be admitted or proscribed.

1885 Under pressure from B.C., the Chinese Immigration Act was passed restricting Chinese immigration through the imposition of a $50 head tax. In 1903 an Act Respecting and Restricting Chinese Immigration increased the duty to $500 per person.

1907 Indians are barred from voting in British Columbia elections.

1908 The Immigration Act is amended by order-in-council 1908-27 to exclude all immigrants who have come to Canada other than by continuous journey from their native country, specifically targeted to restrict Indian immigration.Order in Council 1908-28 also comes into effect, requiring immigrants to be in possession of $50 upon landing.

Nov. 24, 1913 Vancouver lawyer J. Edward Bird uses habeas corpus argument to win Panama Maru case in Victoria, allowing 55 Indian immigrants to land in Canada,successfully challenging the “continuous journey” regulation.

Dec. 8 In response to the Panama Maru case, the Canadian government issues a stop-gap order-in-council that bars skilled and unskilled labourers from landing at 42 B.C. ports.

April 6, 1914 The Governor of Hong Kong allows the Komagata Maru to depart when the Canadian government does not respond to his cable asking if the passengers“will be permitted to land”. The Canadian government’s negative response is cabled April 7th.

May 23 Komagata Maru arrives in Vancouver.

July 6 B.C. Court of Appeal turns down Bird’s habeas corpus appeal for Komagata Maru passenger Munshi Singh, validating the regulation barring labourers from landing at any B.C. port.

July 17 Riot ensues when passengers are informed that deportation papers have been completed.

July 19 Sea Lion tug boat with armed police and immigration officers fails in attempt to take over control of Komagata Maru.

July 23 Under threat from HMCS Rainbow, and after negotiations with the Indian Shore Committee, passengers allow the captain of the Komagata Maru to weigh anchor and depart Vancouver.

Aug. 4 Britain declares war on Germany.

Sept. 27 Komagata Maru arrives near Calcutta. Budge Budge incident results in 20 passengers killed. 62 passengers got on train to Punjab.

1923 Chinese Immigration Act excludes virtually all Chinese immigration. The act is repealed in 1946.

1947 Prohibition against Chinese and Indian voters removed from B.C. statutes.

1962 With the implementation of order-in-council PC 1962-86 overt racial discrimination is removed from Canadian immigration policy.

 Rick Cash, The Globe and Mail

Sources: “Race”, Rights and the Law in the Supreme Court of Canada (Walker); Strangers at Our Gates – Canadian Immigration and Immigration Policy, 1540-1990(Knowles); The Canadian Encyclopedia; Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21; Elections B.C.; The Voyage of the Komagata Maru

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How J. Edward Bird's legacy has survived

J. Edward Bird’s 167-page unpublished memoir has served as a perpetual link between his descendants and the Komagata Maru ever since he finished writing it on Nov. 25, 1939. He tells his life story chronologically in a voice that sounds Victorian: as a teen and young lawyer in Ontario and B.C. at the beginning, and as a well-travelled retiree at the end. In the middle are accounts of his more notable law cases, business deals and partnerships.

His preface reflects the kind of man he was: “I am now in the seventy-second year and have in this very considerable stretch of time, seen things that were interesting, have done many things that I have had occasion to regret, yet have been able to maintain my integrity and self-respect, and I trust the regard of the people with whom I have been brought into contact.”

But it’s the eight pages in his memoir under the heading “Khalsa Diwan Society,” his account of the Komagata Maru incident, that get all the attention. Over the years, my father, Richard Bird, has been approached by a steady stream of academics and university students seeking information about J. Edward Bird and his memoir, as well as organizers of Komagata Maru anniversary events held by the B.C. Sikh community. That, in turn, has kept the story-telling alive in my family.

My father, who was in his third year at UBC when J. Edward Bird died, often speaks of his “kind” grandfather. But it’s my daughter Emily who holds the family record for most school reports about J. Edward Bird: three.

Michael Bird

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Editors’ Note: An archival photo showing Gurdit Singh, the Sikh businessman who chartered the ship Komagata Maru, with a young boy, which appeared in print on May 23 and online, was incorrectly included without permission. The image was originally intended for a 2005 story on a documentary film on the same subject by director Ali Kazimi, entitled Continuous Journey. This version has been corrected.

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