Justin Trudeau: Canada Is Sorry — Again

Justin Trudeau

Yesterday afternoon, Justin Trudeau stood up in Canada’s Parliament in Ottawa, Ontario, and pronounced the nation’s great regret for an act committed 102 years ago. On May 23, 1914, a boat holding 376 mainly Sikh passengers from Punjab, India, landed in Vancouver and all but 20 were refused entry. After being held on board for two months, the ship was sent back to India.

Trudeau Takes Responsibility for Canada’s Part in the Tragedy

The Japanese ship, Komagata Maru, was hired by a rich Sikh businessman. It set sail from Hong Kong, stopping at Shanghai and Japan, picking up Sikh passengers who wanted to immigrate to Canada hoping to improve the lives of their families. While Canada needed immigrant laborers to help build the country, non-white immigrants were not welcome and a negative reception was incited by the media and politicians. Asians already in Canada provided food and drink for the passengers when the ship was in dock.

Tragically, when the ship reached India, still a British colony at that time, the British prevented the passengers from disembarking and tried to arrest those they claimed were radical leaders. A riot ensued and 19 men were killed. Those who did not manage to escape were imprisoned until the end of World War I.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a promise to Canada’s Sikh community on April 11 to formally apologize for Canada’s racist Asian Exclusion Law that led to this tragedy.

Twenty descendants of passengers on the Komagata Maru were in the Speakers’ Gallery of the House of Commons to witness Justin Trudeau’s apology.

The Sikh Community in Canada Today

There are currently about 500,000 Sikhs living across Canada. They began to arrive after the relaxation of immigration laws in 1950. The community is well represented in Trudeau’s government with 17 Members of Parliament in Ottawa being Sikh.

In 2003, the Sikh community began to press politicians for an apology for the tragedy but they were not taken seriously. In 2008, Prime Minister Steven Harper apologized to a crowd of 8,000 Sikhs in British Columbia, but this did not satisfy the Indian community who felt the need for a formal apology from the floor of the House of Commons; finally, this took place yesterday.

Apologies in Canadian History

Canadians have long been aware of how Japanese citizens were placed in internment camps during World War II. In 1988, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney apologized to their descendants for that racist treatment. In 2006, Prime Minister Steven Harper apologized to the Chinese for the unfair head tax placed on Chinese applicants for immigration beginning in 1885. After completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the Canadian government used the tax as a way of stemming the tide of Chinese wanting to enter Canada once they were no longer needed to work on the railway.

Perhaps most significantly, the Canadian government has made efforts to apologize to the country’s First Nations Peoples for the abuses they suffered at the hands of the colonialists and Church. Truth and Reconciliation hearings attempt to assess individual cases and provide compensation for those who had been taken from their families and placed in residential schools. In 2008, Harper also apologized for this appalling chapter in Canadian history.

Some Canadians, including those in the Indo-Canadian population, do not agree with the trend of offering apologies for acts committed in the last century. In an interview with the Vancouver Sun, Ujjal Dosanjh, a former premier of British Columbia, agreed with Justin Trudeau’s father, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who refused to consider offering an apology to Japanese Canadians.

“I believe it’s much better to do something concrete to change the life conditions of people today than to worry about saying ‘we’re sorry’. … I don’t know how you can be sorry for something that was done 100 or 150 years ago.”

A comparison has been made between the Komagata Maru passengers and the Syrian refugees now requesting asylum in Canada. However, as many point out, the former were economic migrants and not refugees. This does not diminish the tragedy of their fate given how they were treated by the British upon their arrival in their native India.

[Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images]