100-year-old Komagata Maru exclusion to be remembered at Coal Harbour memorial

Raj Toor (in blue turban) and his brother Jaswinder Toor in Surrey in June 2013. The pair’s grandfather was on the Komagata Maru, a ship carrying Sikh immigrants to BC that was denied landing rights in 1914. Jason Payne/ PNG

LARISSA CAHUTE  
VANCOUVER DESI

It was 100 years ago Friday that Jaswinder Singh Toor’s grandfather arrived in Vancouver with his sights on a better education.

He convinced his Punjabi parents that opportunity awaited him in Canada and made the long journey aboard the S.S. Komagata Maru.

But when he arrived in Burrard Inlet on May 23, 1914, the ship’s 376 passengers were barred from entering Canada under exclusionary laws.

They were docked for two months until the ship was escorted out of Canadian waters and sent back to India, where a riot ensued. At least 20 men were killed by British forces and many others jailed, including Toor’s grandfather, who vowed to never return to Canada because of the “bitter memories.”

“He convinced (his parents to let him leave) and he only got a lesson in racism,” said Toor, a member of the Descendants of the Komagata Maru Society.

MORE ON THE KOMAGATA MARU

On Friday, Toor will mark the incident’s centennial year at a ceremony at the Coal Harbour memorial, as a way “to remember those passengers who … opened the doors for the South Asian community.”

And while the community has “excelled in every field” — many becoming doctors, lawyers, businessmen, farmers, politicians — they still haven’t been able to move forward from the “dark chapter” 100 years ago, as they still await an official apology from the Canadian government.

Although Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized in 2008 in Surrey’s Bear Creek Park, the community wants one in the House of Commons, “in the same manner it was given to the Chinese community, the Japanese community, the Native community,” said Toor.

“All we want is a more dignified and respectful apology in the House of Commons,” he said.

He’d also like to see the Komagata Maru story better taught in schools across Canada.

“If our children are well-educated they understand the history … they will not make these mistakes again,” he said. “My grandfather said you can beat racism by educating the society.”

The 100th anniversary has also served as a reminder for what more needs to be done with regards to racism and immigration policy in Canada.

According to Burnaby author Harsha Walia, although immigration laws have progressed, “history is repeating itself” in the context of the migrant and temporary foreign worker controversy.

The crowded deck of the Komagata Maru in 1914 (Leonard Frank photo, Vancouver Public Library)

“It’s the same kind of language that we saw with the Komagata Maru,” said Walia. “All of a sudden when there’s a panic about Canadian jobs in the economy then these people and bodies become disposable and deportable.

“Many South Asian migrants continue to be excluded, continue to face hostility, face detention, exploitation, face jail — all the similar conditions that the centennial is marking.”

Walia hopes Friday’s commemorations will provide lessons for the future, as “it would be a massive tragedy if 100 years from now we were making apologies for the temporary foreign worker program.”

The ceremony goes at 12:30 p.m. on Friday, followed by a candlelight vigil in Surrey’s Holland Park at 7 p.m.

Commemorative exhibits are also running through the summer at the Surrey Art Gallery (until June 15) and another at the Vancouver Maritime Museum (until June 8).

Meanwhile, just days before the celebrations, the Maru monument in Coal Harbour was vandalized — for the second time in less than six months.

Vancouver parks board crews have scrubbed the Harbour Green Park monument clean of graffiti, but the process has left a white stain. The memorial, created in partnership with the Khalsa Diwan Society, was previously defaced when a man was photographed urinating on it in December.

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