B.C. politicians marked the 94th anniversary of an event some called a stain on Canadian values by voting to offer an apology Friday for the treatment of South Asian passengers who were denied entry to Canada after arriving at Vancouver harbour.
It was May 23, 1914 - mere months before the start of the First World War - when the Komagata Maru arrived carrying 376 people. Most of them were Sikhs from India's Punjab province and considered British subjects.
But they were denied entry to Canada, and after being anchored in Vancouver's Burrard Inlet for about two months, the Komagata Maru returned to India, only to be met with police gunfire and about 20 deaths.
Relatives of some of the ship's passengers were at the B.C. legislature Friday to witness what they called a historic healing gesture on behalf of the provincial government.
"My dad's uncle, he was on the ship," said Surinder Sharma, of Victoria. "He used to tell us stories when we were kids in the1950s, early '60s, and they seemed like bedtime stories at that time."
"I had no idea what they went through," Mr. Sharma said, his voice shaking. "But now, I'm much pleased today."
Jaswinder Toor of Vancouver said the British Columbia apology provides closure for many people who have been waiting decades for official declarations from governments about the injustices the passengers aboard the Komagata Maru endured.
"My grandfather was on the Komagata Maru," said Mr. Toor, president of the Descendants of the Komagata Maru Society. "They were not allowed to get off the ship. After two months, they were told to go back."
Mr. Toor said his grandfather often spoke about the Komagata Maru incident after his return to India.
"This event was a sad story," he said. "When I was a child, I heard him talking. My grandfather passed away when I was 12, but I heard about Komagata Maru, about how harsh the conditions were and what they went through."
Politicians on both sides of B.C.'s legislature made emotional statements during the debate of Motion 62, offering apologies for what they called a dark chapter in the country's history.
Liberal House Leader Mike de Jong looked up at the packed gallery of the B.C. legislature and said the government was offering an apology for the injustices suffered by the Komagata Maru's passengers, who were refused the opportunity to make Canada their new home.
Part of his message was spoken in Punjabi, and translated into English it said: "Forgive us, you are welcome."
Opposition House Leader Mike Farnworth said B.C. needs to acknowledge the difficult periods of its history, like the denial of entry into Canada for the passengers of the Komagata Maru, in order for the province to understand where it stands today.
"It is a period in our history that is important we don't forget," he said.
Liberal backbencher John Nuraney said the Komagata Maru incident is a stain on the ethics and values Canadians hold dearly. He said it is the duty of Canadians to be vigilant as they guard against acts of racism.
"Have we really eradicated racism?" Mr. Nuraney said.
Earlier this week, Ottawa offered an apology for what has become known in Canadian history as the Komagata Maru incident.
The House of Commons voted unanimously to support a private member's bill introduced by a member of the Liberal Opposition.
Brampton-Springdale MP Dr. Ruby Dhalla introduced the apology motion.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper is reportedly expected to make a formal apology and the Conservative government is planning $2.5-million in grants for a Komagata Maru memorial.
B.C. Attorney General Wally Oppal said what happened to the people on board the Komagata Maru is unimaginable today, and the B.C. government has now acknowledged the racism encountered by the passengers and apologized for their suffering.
"The cry of the day was that Canada was a white man's country," he said. "Many had come here to make Canada their home. They all had dreams to come here."
B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell was on a trade mission is Asia and was not in the legislature for the apology debate.
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