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Ottawa ready to apologize for Komagata Maru incident

Gurcharan Singh Gill's grandfather was a stout man - and could just barely see over the rails of the Komagata Maru when it docked in Burrard Inlet 94 years ago.

Despite that, Daljit Singh, the personal assistant to the man who led the voyage, was proud as he looked out over the water to Vancouver after a month-long voyage that began in Asia, Mr. Gill said.

But after a two-month standoff in British Columbia, the Komagata Maru was turned away, marking one of the most shameful chapters in Canadian immigration history.

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Now, the federal government is preparing to apologize for its exclusion of 376 would-be immigrants from India.

Jason Kenney, the Secretary of State for Multiculturalism and Canadian Identity, has announced that the Conservative government is working on an official apology for the Komagata Maru incident of 1914. Sources said an apology is coming soon, but the government is still deciding the forum in which the announcement will be made - the House of Commons or a community event. The apology is also expected to be accompanied by commemorative grants of $2.5-million.

Mr. Gill, 83, one of only a handful of descendants of Komagata Maru passengers in Canada, welcomed the apology on behalf of his grandfather.

"If they do it with a full heart, it is all right," he said yesterday from his home in Surrey, B.C.

Meanwhile, the president of the Professor Mohan Singh Memorial Foundation, which has been leading the charge to have a formal apology issued to all Indo-Canadians, said he was pleased the federal government is finally acknowledging a past wrong, but said the B.C. government should follow suit.

"I think this is a great day in our history. This should have been done long before," said Sahib Thind.

B.C. Attorney-General Wally Oppal said the federal apology will be made on behalf of all Canadians.

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The Komagata Maru, a Japanese steam liner, arrived in Vancouver on May 23, 1914, during a period when the government of Canada had severely limited the rights of Indians living in the country. It had invoked, in 1908, the now infamous Continuous Passage Act, which stated that Indians would have to come to Canada via a direct passage from India, something that was nearly impossible.

The ship carried 376 passengers - most of them Sikhs - hoping to move to Canada, and left from Hong Kong in April of that year.

After a two-month standoff in British Columbia, only about 20 passengers who already had resident status were legally allowed to stay in the country. Canadian authorities turned the rest away, and the Komagata Maru had to sail back to Asia.

When it arrived in Calcutta in September of 1914, passengers demanded to remain in the city, but were forced to another part of India, then controlled by Britain.

A riot ensued, in which police killed 20 people.

The Komagata Maru incident is recognized today as one of the most egregious examples of the discriminatory immigration laws in Canada in the early 20th century. Indo-Canadian groups have for years called on the government to issue a formal apology.

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"Our government is working toward an official apology for the Komagata Maru incident," Mr. Kenney said this weekend. "This will flow directly from the Prime Minister's recognition of the tragic nature of the Komagata Maru incident, as well as the spirit of the Historical Recognition Programs, whose goal is to ensure that immigration restrictions are properly recognized and commemorated."

Since taking office, the Conservative government has moved to recognize formally or apologize for numerous chapters in Canada's history. In 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized for a head tax on immigrants from China between 1885 and 1923.

Canadian governments have also apologized to Italians, Japanese and Ukrainians, among other groups, for internment and expulsion during the First and Second World Wars.

Such acknowledgment doesn't appear confined to Canadian borders. A Conservative backbencher is pushing for the government to recognize the Ukrainian famine of the 1930s as an act of genocide by the Soviet regime.

Yesterday, the Komagata Maru decision was hailed as an important step.

"Members of the Indo-Canadian community from all backgrounds, especially Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus, thank the Prime Minister and the government of Canada for acknowledging this very sad chapter in Canadian history," said Naresh Raghubeer, national policy director of the Canada India Foundation.

"Acknowledging the past is an important step toward building a positive and constructive relationship between Canada and India, and Indo-Canadians and the wider Canadian community."

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