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Descendants of Komagata Maru passengers ‘pleased’ by apology

People read the monument dedicated to those who were aboard the Komagata Maru in Vancouver on Monday.


A century after her great-grandfather was turned away from Canada while on board the Komagata Maru, Sukhi Ghuman will be in the House of Commons this week to hear the Prime Minister apologize for the slight.

"It's staggering. I don't think [my great-grandfather] ever thought this moment would come," says Ms. Ghuman, 36, who will join other descendants of passengers to witness Wednesday's apology, along with B.C. Premier Christy Clark.

"We're all just astonished and very pleased Prime Minister [Justin] Trudeau has decided to do a formal apology."

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Mr. Trudeau will be seeking to make amends for what happened in 1914 when the Komagatu Maru arrived in Vancouver's harbour from Hong Kong with 376 passengers, mostly Sikhs from India.

Only 24 were allowed to land, while the rest remained on board the ship for two months – victims of the era's exclusionary laws. The ship's passengers and crew then returned to India, where 19 people were killed on its arrival in Calcutta in a skirmish with British soldiers. Others were jailed.

Harnam Singh Sohi – Ms. Ghuman's great-grandfather – came from Punjab hoping to work in Vancouver to provide funds for his family in India and bring them to Canada.

Once the ship returned to India, he forever ruled out returning to Canada.

Former prime minister Stephen Harper apologized in 2008, but not in Parliament. Some who were seeking an apology said few knew about Mr. Harper's apology until it was over.

On Wednesday, Mr. Trudeau will follow up on a long-standing promise and deliver a formal apology in Parliament.

"The laws that were discriminatory against people considered undesirable were passed in Parliament. So the apology being given in Parliament is a circling back to rectify that original wrong," says Naveen Girn of Vancouver, who has curated exhibitions about the Komagata Maru at Simon Fraser University and Lower Mainland museums.

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Mr. Girn, who will also be in Ottawa for the event, notes that a parliamentary apology means the amends are forever preserved in Hansard, which is important.

Mr. Girn, who is not a descendant of any of the Maru passengers, hopes Mr. Trudeau acknowledges the historical wrong done to South Asians and speaks to the living legacy of the Komagata Maru in such matters as the lack of security temporary foreign workers might feel.

He said the passengers believed in a positive idea of Canada. "That idea of Canada doesn't get fulfilled unless we continue to work at making this place better for everyone," he said.

Ms. Ghuman says her parents mentioned the Komagata Maru but it only really sank in when she was 17 and an instructor talked about it at a Punjabi language class at the University of British Columbia where she now works as a marketing and events manager.

"I was completely shocked," says Ms. Ghuman, who was ready to listen then when her father explained that her grandmother's father was on the ship.

She says she hopes Mr. Trudeau's apology helps remind Canadians of this tragedy. "It's part of Canada's history."

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"It was so inhumane to deny people, regardless of race or religion, food and water and to detain them for two months and then to send them back," she says.

Harjit Sajjan, Canada's defence minister, was commander of the regiment involved in forcing the Maru out of Vancouver harbour. Mr. Sajjan was the first Sikh to lead the British Columbia Regiment (Duke of Connaught's Own) in 2011. Mr. Sajjan's office noted that he left the reserves when he became minister.

In a recent speech, Mr. Sajjan underlined the irony of a "commanding officer who is wearing a turban" in a modern leadership role with the unit central to an incident that is a "black mark" in the country's history.

The minister noted there were Indian soldiers aboard the Komagata Maru who may have crossed paths on the World War One battlefields of Europe on the same side with the British empire soldiers who repelled them.

He said the lessons of the Komagata Maru, including the apology, are a positive example to the rest of the world.

Jaswinder Toor's grandfather was a passenger on the ship. In an interview Monday, Mr. Toor – head of an association of descendants of Maru passengers – said his grandfather came to study in Canada, but after returning to India ended up in jail for five years.

Like Ms. Ghuman's great-grandfather, Mr. Toor's grandfather refused to come to Canada when offered a chance. The family tried to sponsor him for a trip in 1969.

Still, he saw some good from the suffering, recalls Mr. Toor.

"He said, 'We have opened the doors for Indo-Canadian people – Sikhs and South-Asian people. [They] will go and live peacefully in Canada and be very successful.' His words have come true."

His grandfather died in 1974.

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About the Author
B.C. reporter

Ian Bailey is a Vancouver-based reporter for The Globe and Mail.  He covers politics and general news. Prior to arriving at The Globe and Mail, he reported from Toronto and St. John’s for The Canadian Press.  He has also covered British Columbia for CP, The National Post and The Province. More


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