A devoted group of Saanich residents are celebrating a century of progress in the fight against racism by recognizing a dark day in Canada’s history.
Today marks 100 years since the Komagata Maru left the B.C. coast carrying 376 Punjabi immigrants after the Canadian government officially refused their request for asylum.
“We’ve come a long way in 100 years,” said Sabba Sal, who organized an exhibition at Saanich Commonwealth Place in May to mark the 100th anniversary of the Komagata Maru’s arrival.
It took another two months before the Sikh, Muslim and Hindu occupants were told to turn around and go home, a dismissal that sparked international controversy and eventual reform of Canadian immigration policy.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized for the incident during a 2008 visit to Surrey, but a formal apology in the House of Commons has not yet materialized.
“Back in 1914, they introduced a bill to basically exclude all Asians from entering Canada,” Sal said. “We’ve never had a formal apology for that, although the Komagata Maru Heritage Foundation is leading that charge and it looks good.”
Sal and his colleagues at the India Canada Cultural Association of Victoria will join Saanich South MLA Lana Popham at her office tomorrow night to commemorate the event, which has the unfortunate distinction of being the first migrant-carrying ship to be turned away from Canadian shores.
Popham will host representatives not only from the local Sikh community, but also Saanich and Victoria police departments and Songhees and Esquimalt Nations. The event is also open to the public.
“It’s a way of putting that dark moment behind us and celebrating how far we’ve come,” Popham said. “We’ll be serving Indian food and chai in the outdoor garden and displaying photographs and artifacts from Komagata Maru throughout the office.”
Sal said the event was undoubtedly spurred on by racism, but Canada has since reformed many policies, and with them, people’s attitudes over the past century.
“The challenge now is to work the next 100 years to include everyone, no matter their colour, language or country,” he said. “We shouldn’t be stuck in the past, we should acknowledge it and then work to make sure no one is excluded and everyone is treated equally.”
From Expulsion to Embrace: Komagata Maru 100 years later, 1914 – 2014, takes place tonight at Popham’s constituency office, 4085 Quadra St., from 6 to 8 p.m.
Read more about the history of the Komagata Maru incident through an interactive online exhibition hosted by Simon Fraser University at komagatamarujourney.ca.