Nearly 102 years after the steamship Komagata Maru with 376 passengers from India was sent away from Canada due to discriminatory laws, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offered an apology over the episode in parliament as direct descendants of the original voyagers watched.
In his speech on Wednesday, Trudeau said: “I apologise, first and foremost, to the victims of the incident. No words can fully erase the pain and suffering they experienced. Regrettably, the passage of time means that none are alive to hear our apology today. Still, we offer it, fully and sincerely.”
Trudeau expressed the government’s official regret over discriminatory laws that were in place in 1914. At that time, the Continuous Passage Regulation mandated immigrants arrive in Canada directly from their home country, which was impossible for those travelling from India.
Officials refused to allow the Indians in, though they were British subjects just like other Canadians. Only 20 passengers who previously lived in Canada were allowed to disembark.
Trudeau also apologised to the descendants, of whom nearly 20 were in attendance, viewing the session from the Speaker’s Gallery in the House of Commons. Trudeau said, “Just as we apologise for past wrongs, so too must we commit ourselves to positive action – to learning from the mistakes of the past, and to making sure that we never repeat them.”
As he spoke, Trudeau often looked directly at several descendants who were in the Speaker’s Gallery. “He looked us in the eye,” said Jaswinder Singh Toor, president of the Families of Komagata Maru Society. Toor described the speech as “very moving”.
Trudeau singled out his cabinet colleague Harjit Sajjan, the minister of national defence, pointing out that he was previously “the commanding officer of the British Columbia Regiment Duke of Connaught’s Own – the same regiment that once forced out the Komagata Maru”.
He said, “A century ago, the minister’s family might well have been turned away from Canada. Today, the minister sits beside us, here, in this House.”
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair (Outremont) made the following statement on the anniversary of the Komagata Maru tragedy:
“Over a hundred years ago, 376 passengers boarded a Japanese steamship named Komagata Maru. Most of them were Sikhs from the Punjab region of India, searching for safety and a better life in Canada.
Instead of being welcomed when they arrived in Vancouver, they were refused entry. The ship remained in Burrard Inlet for two months while the passengers were refused basic necessities, like food and water, before all but twenty were sent back to India.
Let’s be clear: The Komagata Maru wasn’t just an “incident”—it was the result of racist and discriminatory laws, much like the Chinese Head Tax, designed to exclude entire groups of people from Canada.
These policies did immeasurable harm. When the ship arrived in Calcutta, police fired on the passengers. Nineteen people were killed. Many more were imprisoned and persecuted.
New Democrats have a long and proud history of standing with the South Asian community in Canada and fighting for justice for the victims.
Four years ago, our former colleagues, Jasbir Sandhu and Jinny Sims, moved a motion in Parliament calling for an official apology for the Komagata Maru. Despite a nation-wide petition campaign that collected thousands of signatures, our motion was voted down by the government of the day.
After years of struggle, we welcome the long-awaited official apology from the Prime Minister in the House of Commons today. This was a dark chapter in the history of a country that has come to recognize diversity and inclusion as a great strength.
While the healing and reconciliation can now truly begin, we owe it to those who were turned away to do more than just apologise. We must ensure that this kind of tragedy can never again be repeated.
That’s why New Democrats will continue to fight for a more welcoming Canada—where diversity is celebrated, families can reunite with loved ones, and the most vulnerable are given refuge in their time of need.”