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Trudeau Must Do Better Than Just Apologize For Komagata Maru

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau formally apologizes for a 1914 government decision that barred most of the passengers of the Komagata Maru from entering Canada, in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, May 18, 2016. (Photo: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld)

If the collective Punjabi community of Canada were my client, I would have advised them not to seek an apology for what is being referred to as the Komagata Maru "incident."

This strategic advice flies in the face of those in the community who were seeking recognition and closure of an old wound. Some, such as 75 scholars from UBC, are applauding the apology as a valuable demonstration of accepting responsibility.

The less-informed and most xenophobic in Canada who are against the apology have vented their own frustrations through a variety of online comments telling the "new Canadians" to "get over it" and "just be happy you're here." After all, many will say, it was over a century ago -- move on.

With this, we potentially lose the ability to make the point that the Komagata Maru continues to be as relevant today as it was in 1914.

I wouldn't have recommended against the apology because I believe we should get over it; rather, the opposite. We should never get over it. With the apology, we risk the ability to raise the issue of the Komagata Maru with "old stock Canadians" who likely would not want to hear the issue brought up again. With this, we potentially lose the ability to make the point that the Komagata Maru continues to be as relevant today as it was in 1914.

You can't close the book on a chapter whose story is repeating in the lives of vulnerable communities every day. The Komagata Maru is relevant for as long as there exists a population of people who are incapable of the radical empathy required to embrace current and future members of their community. Everyone must be included in the wider conversation and considered fundamental to nation-building in Canada.

Today, the Komagata Maru is still referred to as an isolated incident -- and that is only if it is referenced at all. Until very recently, there was little work done by either the provincial or federal governments to tell the history of this ill-fated ship in the context of Canadian history. To this day, the curriculum of our schools teaches a fantastically racist history.

It's generally a story of white Canadians, their adventures and conflicts as they colonized this land and pushed the indigenous peoples to the footnotes of the colonizer's own stories. Beyond a few key "incidents" that are referenced as very specific points in time, the contributions of non-white populations in Canada are generally excluded from our official histories, from our official school curriculum.

Through this, generations of children have grown up not knowing anything about the intense racism and oppression that was inflicted upon people and sanctioned by elected officials and law enforcement in this country. As a student of the Canadian education system myself, it's appalling that I was almost finished high school before I had even heard about residential schools. It was years later before I became aware of the particular zeal with which these schools went about decimating the culture and sanctity of our First Nations.

So, how is any of this relevant to the Komagata Maru and the official apology that was offered by our prime minister?

This is relevant because the Komagata Maru isn't just a single incident from a century ago. The Komagata Maru is now. It's every day. It's the ongoing exclusion of people and the underlying fallacy of a white Canada that still permeates Canadian culture.

komagata maru
The Komagata Maru (Photo: SFU - UNIVERSITY)

The fallacy that there is such thing as a "normal" Canadian -- a baseline that makes room for outliers in the form of immigrants and people of colour, but is a normative baseline nonetheless. The power structures that existed during the Komagata Maru's time continue to exist today. Of course, that power isn't expressed as vociferously as it once was, but its effects are still felt.

With the niqab debate that raged on during last year's federal election and even more recently with the rhetoric in opposition to Canada's intake of Syrian refugees, one of the most profound examples continues to be our classification of temporary foreign workers who, without a path towards attaining rights and citizenship, become a vulnerable population in Canada. What is this if not a rejection of our supposed Canadian values? The pleas of the Komagata Maru passenger are heard in all of these issues.

The Komagata Maru apology is meant to be a moment of healing and true reconciliation with the Punjabi community of Canada -- something that was denied by Prime Minister Stephen Harper's refusal to offer an official apology on record in Parliament. Prime minister Trudeau must be commended for his open and empathetic approach to government. However, an apology without redress commensurate to the wrong is not an apology.

Today, there are very few resources that exist to re-tell Canadian history completely and inclusively. Some private citizens have taken it upon themselves to collect and disseminate these histories through initiatives such as the 100 Year Journey project, the Sikh Heritage Museum of Canada and Duty, Honour & Izzat.

While it's true that these initiatives operate with partial support from government sources, the nature and extent of the work is still considered to be an addendum to mainstream discourse -- these works are "nice to haves," but not truly considered necessary in the telling of Canadian history. If it weren't for the ongoing labour of many community activists, educators and artists, the community's most important stories would have been lost long ago.

It was their passion and ongoing commitment that has continued to bring awareness to the Komagata Maru, but their work was largely unsupported -- encapsulated as distant, lonely tiles in the Canadian cultural mosaic.

With an apology, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is creating an opportunity for great change. However, this change will only come if there is redress through ongoing investment into academic and creative endeavours. Through this, we can better express the specific character of the Punjabi community in Canada and develop a more complete articulation of Canadian history.

Without that, my greatest fear is that this apology will be used to further silence not only the Punjabi community, but any community that has been fundamentally wronged. We'll know this apology was meaningful when a sincere approach towards redress and ongoing investment is taken not just with the Punjabi community, but with all people -- especially the vulnerable and marginalized.

Prime minister Trudeau has made a public apology in the House of Commons for the Komagata Maru incident of 1914. Although some of the descendants of the Komagata Maru passengers were in attendance, this apology should really be received by all Canadians.

After all, my family arrived in the mid-70s and by Stephen Harper's definition, we weren't "directly affected" by the refusal of this ship in 1914. So, rather than address a subset of the community, my hope is that the apology be directed towards all of Canada and with it the government bring a promise to do better for its people in the future.

Otherwise, what's the point of apologizing if you're just going to do it again?

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