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Time to Apologize for Komagata Maru

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May 23, 1914 was a shameful day in Canadian history. May 23, 1914 was the day that the Komagata Maru, a ship carrying 376 people of South Asian decent, sailed from Japan to the shores of British Columbia. Unfortunately, after spending over a month at sea, the 12 Hindus, 24 Muslims and 340 Sikhs, all of whom were eager to start a new life, were denied entry into Canada.

NDP MP Jasbir Sandhu's motion today urged the Government of Canada to officially apologize in Parliament to the South Asian community and to the individuals impacted by the 1914 Komagata Maru incident in the House of Commons.

For two long months all 376 passengers were forced to stay on board the ship. Not only was it made clear that their presence in our country was unwelcome, Canadian officials also denied passengers very basic necessities such as food and water. For 63 days all of those on board the Komagatu Maru lived in extremely confined spaces fighting hunger and dehydration.

They waited patiently clinging to the hope that perhaps they would be granted entrance into Canada, a country which they believed would provide them with opportunity and a new beginning. Unfortunately, after spending over two months on Canadian waters, the Komagata Maru, and almost all of those on board were forced to depart and return to Asia.

The Komagata Maru incident occurred during a time in Canadian history where there was a deep-seated prejudice against minorities and immigrants, particularly those who were of South Asian descent. Unfortunately, these prejudices were supported by law for during this time there existed a Continuous Passage Act, which stated that South Asians were only allowed to enter into Canada if they had made a continuous voyage without any stopovers.

This particular clause was implemented in an attempt to stop South Asian immigrants from entering Canada for at this time it was not possible for a ship to travel continuously from India to Canada. Although those on board did abide by this law by departing directly from Japan to Canada without stopping over, the fact that they were still denied entry is a reflection of the racist and discriminatory attitudes that were prevalent at this time.

On August 3, 2008 Prime Minister Harper apologized to the South Asian community about the Komagata Maru incident. However the fact that this apology was not delivered in the House of Commons is unacceptable.

I commend Sandhu for introducing this motion and I applaud his commitment to this extremely important issue. Having worked closely with the South Asian community residing in my province of British Columbia, I am well aware of the hurt and pain that was perpetuated by the Komagata Maru incident.

This is why on June 21, 2011 I introduced the very same motion in the Senate of Canada, stating:

"Honourable senators, I give notice that, at the next sitting of the Senate, I will move that the Government of Canada officially apologize in Parliament to the South Asian community and to the individuals impacted in the 1914 Komagata Maru incident."

Historically, the government has extended official apologies in Parliament to acknowledge injustice and wrongdoing. For example, in June of 2010, Prime Minister Harper delivered an official apology to those Aboriginal people who were victims of the Canadian residential school system. Similarly, in 2006, Prime Minister Harper delivered an official apology to those Chinese-Canadian's who were unfairly taxed when immigrating to Canada.

Both of these apologies were extended in a very respectful manner. Both of these apologies recognized the pain, suffering and injustice that was inflicted upon these communities. The 376 passengers on board the Komagata Maru as well as all of those people who were negatively affected by the racist and discriminatory immigration policies that existed at this time also deserve an official apology.

The Canada I know is a country that embraces multiculturalism and welcomes people from all walks of life. The Canada I know prides itself on treating people of all races, religions and creeds with fairness, respect and dignity. Although the Komagata Maru incident happened almost a century ago, it represents a very sad time in our country's history.

I have heard from over 10,000 of my constituents in British Columbia, who have all expressed to me that they would like to be given the same respect that has been extended to other groups and receive an apology in Parliament. It is my sincere hope that we will continue debating this important issue both in the Senate and in the House of Commons, and urge our Government to do the right thing and deliver an apology to the South Asian community and to all of those affected by the 1914 Komagata Maru incident.