Refugees and Migrants: The World’s Gift To Canada

Canada is a nation built by refugees and migrants.  Our greatest national growth occurred during (and after) times of mass influxes of people from throughout the world. 

As a nation we have benefitted from migrations of ‘Loyalists’ after the American Revolution, former slaves from the United States, migrations of Irish and Scots before the turn of the last Century, the arrival of tens of thousands of economic refugees from Europe during blights, depressions, wars, and dictatorial regimes.  We have grown with the arrival of East African refugees in the early 70s, Vietnamese refugees in the late 70s, Eastern Bloc refugees throughout the cold war, and Bosnian refugees in the 90s.

Most Canadians (with the exception of our First Nations) can trace our heritage back to some form of migration.  Even many early English settlers were either economic ‘refugees’, conscripts into the English Army, or even indentured servants.  Of course there was an ‘upper class’ of entrepreneurs, military officers, governors, senior civil servants, etc.  We often forget the ‘how’ behind how we got here, but we sure do celebrate our ‘Canadian-ness’.  

With each new wave of migrants we see the typical 'backlash of first habituation’, where some existing residents feel threatened, or express their previously hidden xenophobic feelings.  In some cases these ideas are driven by negative perceptions within a majority community of a minority group or ‘outsiders’, while sometimes the perceptions are driven by external events ‘wars’ on terror, foreign conflicts (the World Wars), etc.  

In the early 1900s Canada was seeing an influx of new migrants.  A young nation, Canada had built railways and towns from coast to coast. Our resources were driving the growth of an Empire, feeding multiple war efforts, and growing cities in the East.  Even in light of this growth forces of xenophobia and fear had forced the federal government to adopt the ‘Continuous Passage’ policy for immigration.  The prevailing mood in Canadian society at the time was one stained with thoughts of ‘protection of civilization’ and ‘cultural suitability’, and this fuelled the justification for the policy.  The West Coast in particular - home to thousands of Chinese and Indian settlers and workers - was rapt with these thoughts, and hostility towards the newcomers.

Many South Asians - particularly farmers and former soldiers in the British Indian Army - had seen Canada as a very promising new home.  Thousands of Indians - mostly from the Punjab - had toiled building Canadian railways and working in local lumber mills.  They spent years struggling to send money home to families, with the faint hope that one day their families would be able to join them.  The lone impediment was the government policy requiring any immigrants to reach Canada via a continuous journey from their land of origin.  The policy itself had been drawn up specifically to prevent immigration from India.  

On the 23rd of May, 1914, 376 passengers on the chartered Japanese ship ‘Komagata Maru’ arrived in Burrard Inlet from Hong Kong.  These passengers, all British subjects,  mostly immigrants from Punjab, were traveling to challenge Canada’s ‘Continuous Journey Regulation’.  Upon arrival these migrants were denied dockage (with the exception of 20 returning Canadian residents and the on-board doctor).

For two months the migrants were held offshore, surrounded by police and naval vessels.  Finally on July 23rd, 1914, the Komagata Maru was forcibly escorted out of Vancouver Harbour by a Canadian Navy vessel.  Upon arrival at the ‘Budge-Budge’ Docks (on the Hooghly River, in Kolkata, India), the passengers were fired upon by British forces, with 19 passengers losing their lives, and many injured and unjustly arrested.

The Komagata Maru incident was certainly not the last time migrants to Canada were turned away, or sent back into harm’s way. We have been guilty of maintaining a systemic and popular ‘tradition' (for at least the first 40-50 years of the last century) of exclusion.

In June, 1939 a German vessel - the SS St. Louis - arrived off the US Eastern seaboard carrying 908 Jewish refuge-seekers from Hamburg, Germany.  After being rejected by Cuba, and the United States, the valiant Captain tried to find shelter for the refugees in Canada.  Pushed into inaction by Immigration Branch director - civil servant Frederick Charles Blair - Canada’s Government of the time turned away the refugees, sending many to their deaths.

It is interesting to note, once again, the prevailing mindset of Canada’s elite at the time:

"Frederick Blair was born 1874 in CarlisleOntario, the son of Scottish parents. In 1903 he joined the Department of Agriculture and in 1905 he became an immigration officer. In 1924 he became assistant deputy minister of immigration and in 1936 became the director of the Immigration Branch. He was a church elder and a dedicated civil servant who oversaw every aspect of Canadian immigration. He ruled the Immigration Branch with an iron fist… Blair was anti-Semitic, as were many among the Canadian elite of the time. Though he couched his public statements and policies in generalized, protectionist language, Blair's letters and private conversations, quoted extensively inNone Is Too Many, reveal his distaste for Jews… While the government of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King was ultimately responsible for Canada's closed-door policy, Blair was the policy's architect and staunch champion… In his 1941 annual report, Blair wrote "Canada, in accordance with generally accepted practice, places greater emphasis on race than upon citizenship". It is a candid and revealing admission of the standards of the time. When he retired in 1943, Frederick Blair was named a Companion of the Imperial Service Order for his long and meritorious service to Canada.” (Wikipedia)
 
As you can see, it was not just beliefs of civil servants and governments of the day, but a general Canadian feeling to be very anti-immigrant.
Over the next 50 to 75 years Canada changed remarkably.  Much of the change was championed by the very progressive Liberal governments of Pearson, and Trudeau.  Minority rights were brought to the forefront of the Canadian conversation.  The freedom struggles of African-Americans helped foster a conversation in Canada as well.  
Meanwhile, refugees and immigrants to Canada have become invaluable assets to this great nation: 
"Between 1979 and 1981, Canada accepted 60,000 “boat people” from Southeast Asia. Within a decade, 86% of those former refugees were working, healthy and spoke English with some proficiency, achieving the basic criteria for success set out by academic Morton Beiser in his landmark study of their integration into Canadian society. They were less likely to use social services and more likely to have jobs than the average Canadian. One in five was self-employed. They weren’t a drain on the taxpayer—theywere taxpayers… This mirrors the experience in Germany, where a 2012 study found residents with foreign citizenship paid $218 billion more in taxes than they received in social benefits. German officials have been smart to cast their willingness to accept a half-million asylum seekers each year as not just a humanitarian gesture, but as wise economic policy. “We will profit from this, too, because we need immigration,” said Andrea Nahles, the country’s labour minister.(Canadian Business Magazine)”. 
 
The Conference Board of Canada indicates that we will need to attract 350,000 new immigrants a year by the year 2035, in order to sustain our economy and standard of living.  There is a real need for migrants and refugees - not just to make Canada a more interesting and diverse nation, but for well-substantiated economic reasons as well.
 
As a foundation commemorating the tragic series of events of 1914, and solely pursuing an OFFICIAL APOLOGY ON THE FLOOR OF THE HOUSE OF COMMONS (AND ENTRY INTO HANSARD), it is imperative that we not only recount the tragic history of the past, but continue to fight for the values that will ensure that the racist policies leading to it never happen again.
 
The Professor Mohan Singh Memorial Foundation has been seeking an official apology in the House of Commons for over 20 years. WE are the only organization single-mindedly pursuing this goal.  There is a long history of ‘feigned’ apologies and false promises, as well as valiant attempts to extract said apology from governments of the day.  Here are some of the key events (from Wikipedia):
 
"In response to calls for the government of Canada to address historic wrongs involving immigration and wartime measures, the Conservative government in 2006 created the community historical recognition program to provide grant and contribution funding for community projects linked to wartime measures and immigration restrictions and a national historical recognition program to fund federal initiatives, developed in partnership with various groups. The announcement was made on June 23, 2006, at the time Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized in the House of Commons for the head tax against Chinese immigrants.[13]
 
On August 6, 2006, Prime Minister Harper made a speech at the Ghadri Babiyan da Mela (Festival of the Ghadar Party) in Surrey, B.C., where he stated that the government of Canada acknowledged the Komagata Maru incident and announced the government's commitment to "undertake consultations with the Indo-Canadian community on how best to recognize this sad moment in Canada's history."[14]
 
On April 3, 2008, Ruby Dhalla, MP for Brampton—Springdale, tabled motion 469 (M-469) in the House of Commons which read, "That, in the opinion of the House, the government should officially apologize to the Indo-Canadian community and to the individuals impacted in the 1914 Komagata Maru incident, in which passengers were prevented from landing in Canada."[15]
 
On May 10, 2008, Jason Kenney, Secretary of State (Multiculturalism and Canadian Identity), announced the Indo-Canadian community would be able to apply for up to $2.5 million in grants and contributions funding to commemorate the Komagata Maru incident.[16]
 
Following further debate on May 15, 2008, Dhalla's motion was passed by the House of Commons.[17]
 
On May 23, 2008, the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia unanimously 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 and accepted."[18]
 
On August 3, 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper appeared at the 13th annual Ghadri Babiyan Da Mela (festival) in Surrey, B.C., to issue an apology for theKomagata Maru incident. He said, in response to the House of Commons motion calling for an apology by the government, "On behalf of the government of Canada, I am officially conveying as prime minister that apology."[19][20] 
 
(Of course many)... were unsatisfied with the apology as they expected it to be made in Parliament. Secretary of State Jason Kenney said, "The apology has been given and it won't be repeated," thus settling the matter for the federal government.[21]
 
As an example of how Canadian society has changed, the British Columbia Regiment (Duke of Connaught's Own), which was involved in the expulsion of theKomagata Maru, was commanded by a Sikh, Harjit Sajjan, from 2011 until 2014.[22]"
 

As of this writing, there is a promise - from the newly elected Liberal Government of Justin Trudeau - to offer an official apology on the floor of the House of Commons.  We look forward to sharing this momentous occasion with Canadians everywhere, but the work of the Professor Mohan Singh Memorial Foundation will continue.  We will continue to seek justice for migrants and those who have sacrificed to make a better life for their families.  We will continue to champion the cause of our pioneers, and hard-working elders who have made this new homeland what it is.  We will continue to educate and inform, to ensure that tragedies such as the ‘Komagata Maru Affair’ never occur again in this great land, and to ensure that the rich resource of migration (via normal or refugee channels) continues to help build our nation.

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