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Politics Trudeau apologizes for ‘great injustice’ of Komagata Maru incident

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau answers a question during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, May 17, 2016.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

As soon as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau finished apologizing for the 1914 Komagata Maru incident, a roar rose in the House of Commons.

"Bole so nihal," shouted Amarjeet Singh Sidhu in his native Punjabi, using a common phrase to express the Sikh community's deepest thanks for the gesture.

Hundreds of spectators who packed the galleries responded enthusiastically to the Sikh activist from Brampton, Ont., shouting back with a saying that roughly translates as: "Long live the truth."

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The impromptu cheers capped the Canadian government's solemn apology for turning back a ship that arrived in Vancouver's harbour 102 years ago with 376 passengers on board, mostly Sikhs from India.

Calling it a "great injustice," Mr. Trudeau expressed the country's shame as only 24 of the passengers on the Komagata Maru were allowed to land, while the rest remained on board for two months, victims of the era's exclusionary laws. The remaining passengers and crew returned to India, where 19 people were killed on the ship's arrival in Calcutta in a skirmish with British soldiers.

"Those passengers chose Canada. And when they arrived here, they were rejected," Mr. Trudeau said, pointing out the rules of the day were specifically targeted at people from countries such as India.

"Canada's government was, without question, responsible for the laws that prevented these passengers from immigrating peacefully and securely. For that, and for every regrettable consequence that followed, we are sorry," Mr. Trudeau said.

Jasminder Singh Ghuman travelled from British Columbia to pay tribute to his grandfather, Dhyan Singh Ghuman, who was one of the passengers.

"He's got honour now," Mr. Ghuman said in the rotunda of the House of Commons. "I got honoured too, because I belonged to the family who suffered."

B.C. Premier Christy Clark was the only Premier invited by the Prime Minister's Office to attend the ceremony. The province made its own apology in 2008.

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"This means a lot to the community in our province. And the B.C. government was part of it – part of the injustice that was done, and also part of the apology that was offered," Ms. Clark said in an interview.

She said many British Columbians are still connected to the ship's history.

"People have a lot of memories about it. You can walk down in the harbour and people will tell you where it happened 102 years ago," she said.

"I think the community still feels racism. It's not like it was, but I think that people still feel like they're sometimes a little bit less welcome. And I think this was a really important statement from government that they are included fully in our society as equals," she said.

Harbhajan Singh Gill, president of the Komagata Maru Heritage Foundation, travelled to Ottawa from Surrey, B.C., to witness the apology.

"It's a long time coming. I think we have a different Canada than what we had 102 years ago. With this apology, I think it's a fresh start for the descendants and the community," said Mr. Gill.

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Standing alongside Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said the time is right to focus on the fact immigrants can now thrive in the country.

"Today is about how Canada has evolved from the mistakes of the past," he told reporters shortly after all five leaders in the House had spoken. "We can show the next generation what is actually possible in Canada."

Former prime minister Stephen Harper apologized for the incident in 2008, but at an Indo-Canadian community event in a park in Surrey, B.C. and not in the House.

Former NDP MP Jasbir Sandhu repeatedly tried to persuade the Harper government to offer a formal apology between 2011 and 2015, to no avail. In an interview, he praised the Trudeau government for delivering on its commitment.

"A statement in the House allows for closure, and also constitutes a recognition that this should not happen again," Mr. Sandhu said.

The Conservative Party's interim leader, Rona Ambrose, said after Mr. Trudeau's statement that her party "welcomes today's apology."

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