From the Komagata Maru to the MV Sun Sea

BASICS Issue #22 (Sep/Oct 2010)

by Sikander Panag

In 1914, the Komagata Maru, a Japanese cargo ship, was en route to Canada carrying 376 Indian migrant workers. Of the passengers, 340 were Sikhs, 24 Muslims, and 12 Hindus, all of whom were British subjects and many veterans of the British Army. Upon arriving in Vancouver’s harbour, the passengers were not allowed entry onto the land and the ship was greeted with hostility by Canadian officials.

A similar situation is currently unfolding with the arrival of the MV Sun Sea, a freighter that arrived on Canada’s west coast on August 13, 2010 carrying nearly 500 Tamil refugees. Public Safety Minister Vic Toews called the passengers “suspected human smugglers and terrorists”.

In 1914, only a few thousand Indian immigrants were called Canadian. They were barred from running for public office, serving on juries, and working as professionals in many fields, such as accounting, law and pharmacy. The government passed laws specifically intended to discourage South Asian immigration, such as the ‘Continuous Journey’ regulation. This law prohibited the landing of migrants on ships that made stopovers on the long voyage to Canada from India, a difficult feat considering the distance.

Political figures at the time were open about their white-only, racist views, including Vancouver’s mayor Truman Baxter, who helped organize anti-Asian rallies, which targeted peoples from East Asia as well. Following the arrival of the Komagata Maru, Vancouver’s newspaper headlines warned of a “Hindu invasion”.

After two months of waiting aboard the ship in deficient conditions, the Indian refugees were forced out of Canadian waters and sent back to India. Upon arrival in Calcutta, the British government labeled the men as political agitators: 19 were killed while many of the rest were imprisoned.

The terms being used by Canadian officials to refer to the Tamil refugees of the MV Sun Sea today strikingly resemble the past. Terms like “human smugglers”, “terrorists”, “queue-jumpers”, and “bogus refugees” are drumming up a lot of fear amongst other Canadians, creating a callous and indifferent attitude towards the condition of the refugees.

On May 23, 2008, the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia passed a resolution “that this Legislature apologizes for the events of May 23, 1914, when 376 passengers of the Komagata Maru, stationed off Vancouver harbour, were denied entry by Canada. The House deeply regrets that the passengers, who sought refuge in our country and our province, were turned away without benefit of the fair and impartial treatment befitting a society where people of all cultures are welcomed.”

Two years ago, Prime Minister Stephen Harper also uttered an apology in front of a B.C. crowd at an Indian festival, in an attempt to drum up Conservative support amongst Canadian Sikhs.

But what does that apology amount to when the exact same drama is unfolding today? Currently, the 490 Tamil refugee migrants, 40 of whom are children, are being detained in British Colombia. The media has begun flirting with the concept of revoking refugee status from current refugees.

This time around, those in need are given health care and food, and officials say that if any security threats or ties with terrorism can be determined, it will be the last straw. By ‘terrorism’, Canadian officials are referring to any ties with the defeated national liberation group, the Tamil Tigers. But if Canadian officials did not want to deal with increased refugee flows in the first place, they should not have backed the Sri Lankan government in their genocidal war against the Tamils to begin with. Just as the 300,000 Tamils who have made Canada their home are no threat to other Canadians, neither will the current refugees be if they are granted refugee status in Canada.

We must not let the history of the Komagata Maru repeat itself today. Many migrant workers of the Komagata Maru were sent to their death in British India in 1914, and any Tamils sent back to Canada-backed Sri Lanka today are sure to face a similar fate. Canada must not only let the refugees stay, but more importantly stop providing critical support for refugee-producing regimes like Sri Lanka.