Canada Post will be unveiling a new stamp on May 6 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Komagata Maru incident, drawing attention to an exclusionary immigration policy that denied hundreds of Indian migrants’ entry into Canada in 1914.
The Komagata Maru was a chartered ship from Hong Kong that carried 376 passengers from British India to the Dominion of Canada. When the ship arrived in Vancouver on May 23, 1914, the Canadian government refused to allow 352 migrants, mainly Sikhs, from disembarking because of a 1908 law called the Continuous Passage Act. The law, which remained on the books until 1947, required immigrants to enter Canada directly from their country of origin without any stops in between.
The passengers argued that the provision didn’t apply to them because they were British subjects, as India and Canada were still considered British colonies. The government eventually allowed 24 migrants to enter Canada because they were deemed returning residents, but refused to allow the remaining passengers entry.
“It was an exclusionary immigration policy meant to racially discriminate against South Asians,” said Naveen Girn, a Vancouver-based project manager for the 100th anniversary of the Komagata Maru incident.
“It required migrants coming to Canada to arrive via a direct passage from the country of origin and because there was no direct passage at that time between India and Canada it was seen as a round about way of denying Indian immigration.”
After months of legal battles, the Supreme Court of British Columbia upheld the law and on July 23, 1914, a Canadian naval ship escorted the Komagata Maru out of Vancouver’s harbor and into international waters. Upon the ship’s return to India, World War I had broken out, and many passengers were shot or imprisoned by police under charges of carrying out seditious activity.
The controversial incident has been well documented by the Indo-Canadian community, which advocated for a formal apology from the Canadian government for years.
In May 2008, the British Columbian government voted to apologize for the treatment of the passengers on the ship. Three months later Prime Minister Stephen Harper also apologized during a speech in Surrey B.C. attended by 8,000 people.
Despite Harper’s apology, many from the community denounced it at the time, demanding the apology be made in the House of Commons like he did when he apologized for the Chinese head tax.
The unveiling of the stamp will take place on Parliament Hill to kick off the beginning of Asian Heritage Month, according to Canada Post.
“Our job is the continual struggle to ensure the Komagata Maru is known to all Canadians as an important story to the narrative of Canada and how Canada comes to terms with its history,” said Girn.