In the early 1900s, Canadian immigration officials began making provisions to block immigration from India, and were advised by London to be cautious in their approach because both Canada and India were part of the British Empire and the rights of all subjects of the Empire needed to be respected. Canadian officials nevertheless devised an immigration regulation that had the effect of excluding many prospective Indian immigrants. To be admitted to Canada, immigrants were required to come by “continuous journey” from their country of birth, and enter with at least $200 cash each. The “continuous journey” regulation did not mention race or nationality, and on the surface seemed fair and applicable to all immigrants. However, it was an open secret that the regulation was intended to be applied primarily to people from British India.
The arrival of the ship Komagata Maru in Burrard Inlet on May 23, 1914, with 376 passengers aboard from British India was an outright challenge to the application of this regulation. Canadian immigration authorities did not permit passengers to leave the boat, claiming they could not be admitted until officials had determined if they met the requirements of the “continuous journey” regulation. Refused permission to land, the passengers lived for two months aboard ship like prisoners, continuously threatened by famine and disease.
For the full two months the passengers of the Komagata Maru, the South Asian community in British Columbia and Canadian immigration authorities were engaged in a heated legal battle about the passengers’ rights as British subjects to enter Canada. At the end of the two months, only 24 passengers were given permission to stay in Canada, and on July 23, 1914 the Komagata Maru was forced to leave Canadian waters. The handling of the tragedy was a major embarrassment for the Canadian government of the day, and even today it reminds all Canadians, and particularly South-Asian-Canadians, of past injustices. Upon return of the Komagata Maru to Kolkata, India, 20 passengers were shot by the British Raj.
The Komagata Maru tragedy is a reminder of a policy of exclusion for immigrants on the un-just basis of culture, religious belief and skin-colour. Despite the prejudice and hostility in Canada that the Komagata Maru story exemplifies, the Indo-Canadian community has survived and prospered in Canada. The community emerged in the 1980’s with a positive and confident outlook, and today, in a more tolerant and compassionate Canada, the Komagata Maru remains a powerful symbol of unjust discrimination.
In 2002, the Professor Mohan Singh Memorial Foundation of Canada initiated a petition asking for an apology from the Canadian Government. This petition was presented to the Canadian Parliament with thousands of signatures. This matter still remains without closure.
In 2005, the federal government unveiled a $50-millon package designed to rectify historic injustices towards seven ethnic groups, including Indo-Canadians. The Government had planned to provide funds for plaques and educational activities. However, the package did not include an outright apology for the survivors or their descendants nor to the South-Asian-Canadian community. The Federal Government presented this package to the Indian community in 2005 but it was rejected by a majority of the South-Asian-Canadian community with vocal opposition.
On May 23, 2006, the Professor Mohan Singh Memorial Foundation of Canada held a solemn ceremony in Stanley Park to mark the 92nd anniversary of the arrival of the Komagata Maru in Burrard Inlet. Over 500 people including MLAs, MPs and community activist from all parties attended this ceremony. The voice of all attendees was united: justice required “acknowledgement and apology” for the Komagata Maru tragedy.
Community Consultations: The Professor Mohan Singh Memorial Foundation of Canada further met with the Indo-Canadian Community seeking their input into addressing the issue. Members of the Foundation met with Jason Kenny, Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister, on May 27, 2006 in Vancouver to relay the results of their community consultations. The results of this extensive consultation with members of the community are summarized below.
On July 22, 2006, the Professor Mohan Singh Memorial Foundation of Canada held a candlelight vigil to mark the departure of the Komagata Maru from the waters of Burrard Inlet. The attendees again voiced a united call for “acknowledgement and apology” for the Komagata Maru tragedy.
On August 6, 2006, the Right Honorable Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of Canada, speaking at “Gadri Babiyan da Mela” (organized by Prof. Mohan Singh Memorial Foundation of Canada), acknowledged the efforts of the Foundation to promote a better understanding of this tragedy. He said, “the government of Canada acknowledges the Komagata Maru tragedy and we will soon undertake consultations with the Indo-Canadian community on how best to recognize this sad moment in our history.”
The Government of Canada has yet to issue an apology. The community unequivocally demanded an apology in the Canadian Parliament for the Komagata Maru tragedy. The Komagata Maru tragedy remains unresolved. The Prof Mohan Singh Memorial Foundation remain committed to seeking an apology from the federal government. The Foundation submitted a second petition to the Federal Government in April 2008 with over 20000 signatures again asking for an apology.
On May 7, 2008 the Foundation wrote a letter to the Honourable Jason Kenney,Secretary of State (Multiculturalism and Canadian Identity). The letter strongly advised Mr. Kenney, “that the community is expecting an apology in regards to the Komagata Maru tragedy. Any other measures will not suffice, including any monetary funding for monuments/projects. Any measures taken by the government without an apology will be viewed an attempt to ‘buy’ votes from the community and it will be strong condemned by the community and our organization.”
On May 10, 2008 the Honourable Jason Kenney, Secretary of State (Multiculturalism and Canadian Identity) announced that “our Government is working towards an official apology for the Komagata Maru incident. This will flow directly from the Prime Minister’s recognition of the tragic nature of the Komagata Maru incident, as well as the spirit of the Historical Recognition Programs, whose goal is to ensure that immigration restrictions are properly recognized and commemorated.”
The Prof. Mohan Singh Memorial Foundation also lobbied the BC Provincial government for an apology for its role in this tragedy. After 94 years, the B.C. legislature unanimously passed a motion on May 23, 2008 apologizing for the Komagata Maru incident. "This house deeply regrets that the passengers who sought refuge were turned away," said Liberal House Leader Mike de Jong.
In August 2008, the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephan Harper half heartedly offered an apology in Surrey, BC, during the annual “Gadri Babiyan da Mela” organized by Prof. Mohan Singh Memorial Foundation of Canada, however, the community immediately rejected this political statement. The community demanded a respectful apology in the Canadian parliament. To date no such apology is forthcoming from the Conservative Government. The Conservative Government refused to apologize in the House of Commons for the Komagata Maru to the South Asian Community.
The government has issued an apology in Parliament to the Japanese community for wrongful imprisonment of Japanese during the WWII. The government has also issued an apology in Parliament to the Chinese community for the head tax on Chinese immigrants, and issued an apology to First Nations for residential school abuses. HOWEVER, the Harper government was not willing to issue an apology to the South Asian community in the Canadian parliament!!
In October 2009, Prof. Mohan Singh Memorial Foundation delivered a third petition to Jack Layton, Member of Parliament and leader of the Canadian New Democratic Party. Jack Layton promised to present the petition to the parliament and will ask the government to formally apologize for the Komagata Maru tragedy in the House of Commons/Parliament.
In November 2009, Prime Minister Harper visited Amritsar. At the same time, members of the Prof. Mohan Singh Memorial Foundation of Canada also went to Punjab to raise awareness of the Komagata Maru tragedy. As the Prime Minster visited Amritsar, the Foundation held a candlelight vigil at Jallianwala Bagh to remember the Komagata Maru Tragedy.
On April 13, 2010 Jack Layton, leader of the opposition New Democratic Party, moved the petition signed by thousands of people at ‘Mela Gadri Babiyan Da’ 2009, in the House of Commons, said, "The Conservatives (the ruling party at the time) have proven they have a heart when it comes to saying sorry to communities such as the First Nations and Aboriginals over the residential school abuse and the Chinese head tax - now it's time to apologize to the Sikh, Hindu and Muslim communities who suffered from the Komagata Maru".
"Today is Vaisakhi - the Sikhs' New Year, celebrated all around the world. It's in this spirit of celebration that I presented a petition signed by more than 4,600 Canadians, demanding this government apologize for the mistreatment and denial of basic necessities and legal rights on May 23, 1914, to Indians who were on board the Komagata Maru.''
Mr. Layton thanked the organization and individuals for collecting signatures, "This petition was a Canada-wide, community effort, but particular thanks goes to the Prof. Mohan Singh Memorial Foundation of Canada, and to Sahib Thind and Jasbir Sandhu."
Mr. Layton further said that the government should use the auspicious Vaiaskhi day to recognize an historical wrong. "What better gift to give the community on Vaisakhi than the apology and acknowledgement that they deserve. The Komagata Maru has been an unhealed scar in the Sikh community and in our history,'' said the leader of the opposition party (which had also moved a motion nine years earlier to get the five Sikh religious symbols recognized by the Canadian parliament).
The Prof Mohan Singh Memorial Foundation held a candlelight vigil on May 23, 2010 in Stanley Park to mark the arrival of the Komagata Maru in the Vancouver and a candlelight vigil was also help at Bear Park on July 23, 2010 to mark the departure of the Komagata Maru. At both of these events, community leaders and the Prof. Mohan Singh Memorial Foundation stood side by side to demand an official apology in Parliament for the Komagata Maru Tragedy.
The Prof Mohan Singh Memorial Foundation held a candlelight vigil on May 23, 2011 at Bear Creek park to mark the arrival of the Komagata Maru in the Vancouver and a candlelight vigil was also help at Bear Park on July 23, 2010 to mark the departure of the Komagata Maru. At both of these events, community leaders and Prof. Mohan Singh Memorial Foundation stood side by side to demand an official apology in the Parliamentfor the Komagata Maru Tragedy.
The Prof. Mohan Singh Memorial Foundation of Canada was represented by Sahib Singh Thind on May 18, 2012 when NDP MP Jasbir Sandhu introduced a motion in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Ontario, to demand an official apology in the House of Commons from the Government of Canada. Unfortunately, the motion did not pass. The conservatives members of parliament voted against the motion.
The foundation thanked the members of Parliament who supported the motion and continue to pursue other members of Parliament for an official apology in the House of Commons. The Foundation held a candlelight vigil on May 24, 2012 at Bear Creek. Sahib Singh Thind also visited Toronto and Winnipeg in May 2012 to inform members of the South Asian community about the Komagata Maru tragedy. The Prof. Mohan Singh Memorial Foundation has an ongoing petition to demand from the Government of Canada an official apology for the Komagata Maru tragedy.
A candlelight vigil for the 99th Anniversary of the arrival of the Komagata Maru was also organized by the Prof. Mohan Singh Memorial Foundation on May 23, 2013 at Bear Creek Park, in Surrey, BC.
On March 25th, 2014 the Prof. Mohan Singh Memorial Foundation attended a sitting of the Punjab State Assembly (in Chandigarh, India) to receive the Assembly’s UNANIMOUS SUPPORT (by way of a unanimously passed resolution) to ask the Government of India to encourage the Canadian Government to offer a formal apology in Parliament.
On the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the Komagata Maru (May 23rd, 2014), the Prof. Mohan Singh Memorial Foundation again organized a large function at Holland Park in Surrey, BC. Many leaders from the community spoke of the need for a formal apology in the House of Commons. Sahib Thind, President of the Prof. Mohan Singh Memorial Foundation again demanded the Government of Canada offer an officially apology in the House of Commons. He further added “ the South Asian community has been waiting for the apology for 100 years and the healing process can only begin with an official and sincere apology in the House of Commons.” The leader of the Offical Opposition (the NDP’s Tom Mulcair) was present at this 100th anniversary of the Komagata Maru. Mr. Mulcair firmly assured the members of the community that the NDP is committed to an official apology in the House of Commons and will do so if the NDP forms a new government in 2015.
On August 3rd, 2014, Justin Trudeau (then Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, and future Prime Minister) addressed the crowd at the Mela Gadri Babiya Da in Bear Creek Park, Surrey, BC. He promised the Liberal Party of Canada would offer a full apology in the House of Commons if the Liberal Party of Canada formed the next election (in October 2015): "I pledge to you right now, that if I become Prime Minister of this great country, I will formally apologize, in the floor of the House of Commons, for the Komagata Maru Incident."
On September 29th, 2014 Sahib Thind met with Prime Minister Stephen Harper at his Calgary office to discuss the matter of an official apology in the Canadian Parliament. This date is significant, as it was the date on which 19 passengers from the Komagata Maru were killed by British authorities upon their return to Calcutta, India - after being turned away from Canada.
On August 2nd, 2015, Justin Trudeau (Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada) appeared for a second time at the Mela Gadri Babiyan Da to reiterate his promise of an official apology in Parliament that he had made in 2014.