OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau formally apologized Wednesday in the House of Commons for a 1914 government decision that barred most of the passengers of the Japanese steamship Komagata Maru from entering Canada.
The chartered vessel was carrying 376 Indian passengers, nearly all of them Sikhs, bound for what they thought would be a new life in Canada.
They were hoping to challenge the immigration laws at the time which refused entry to any Indians who had not arrived in Canada via a continuous journey from the home country — nearly impossible at the time.
Except for 20 passengers who had previously lived in Canada, Canadian officials refused to allow the Indians in, even though they were British subjects just like every other Canadian of the time.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, May 18, 2016. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/CP)
The vessel returned to India, where 19 of the passengers were killed in a skirmish with British authorities and dozens of others were imprisoned or forced into hiding.
"Canada cannot solely be blamed for every tragic mistake that occurred with the Komagata Maru and its passengers,'' a Trudeau told the House, which was packed with MPs and onlookers, many of whom had travelled from across the country.
"But Canada's government was, without question, responsible for the laws that prevented these passengers from immigrating peacefully and securely. For that, and for every regrettable consequence that followed, we are sorry.''
Trudeau's formal apology is the second from a Canadian prime minister. Former prime minister Stephen Harper delivered an apology in 2008 in British Columbia, not the House of Commons.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is shown at an event in Ottawa celebrating Vaisakhi. (Photo: The Canadian Press)
"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,'' he said.
"Still, we offer it, fully and sincerely. For our indifference to your plight. For our failure to recognize all that you had to offer. For the laws that discriminated against you, so senselessly. And for not formally apologizing sooner.
"For all these things, we are truly sorry.''
The B.C. legislature passed its own resolution apologizing in May 2008.