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Unlocking Canada's Secret History of Dealing with "Undesirables"

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"'Blame the British,'" recalls award-winning filmmaker Ali Kazimi during a recent symposium at Simon Fraser University (SFU) on the Komagata Maru. That's the advice he was given while working on his film "Continuous Journey," which documented the infamous incident nearly 100 years ago when Canada barred 376 Indians from entering the country.

The boat arrived in Vancouver's harbour in May 1914, deliberately challenging the country's exclusionary Continuous Passage regulation that required immigrants to travel directly to Canada from their place of birth. The policy had been carefully crafted in 1908 to keep Indians and other undesirables from coming to Canada -- notwithstanding their status as British subjects.

For two long months, the passengers of the Komagata Maru languished in the harbour just one kilometre from land. After a failed court case and close to starvation, the boat was escorted out of harbour by the Canadian military on July 23, 1914. On its arrival in India, the British opened fire on the passengers, killing 19 and imprisoning many others suspected of fomenting rebellion against the Raj.

But by blaming the British, as Kazimi was counseled, we make history palatable and excuse the role Canada played in the incident. A new website funded by the federal government, however, finally aims at unlocking the Komagata Maru incident and its significance in Canadian history.

The digital collection curated by SFU's Library and co-created with the local South Asian community was unveiled at the symposium. "We want to preserve as much material as possible so that the site becomes the definitive source of information," says Brian Owen, SFU's Associate University Librarian for Technology Services and Special Collections.

"The website is available to anyone, anywhere at any time," adds Owen. In addition to an interactive timeline, primary documents, and first-hand accounts, the site also includes lesson plans designed for elementary and secondary school children. The intent is clear -- all Canadians should learn the lesson of the Komagata Maru.

Throughout the symposium, panelists and audience members alike repeatedly emphasized that the story is Canadian -- not simply South Asian or Punjabi.

"I want to move beyond 1914 and make links to other major moments like the Chinese head tax and internment of the Japanese during World War II," says Naveen Girn, the cultural researcher and digitization specialist on SFU's Komagata Maru Project Management Team.

The story of the Komagata Maru touches on the shared experiences of immigrants and refugees in Canada. Not only from the past but also in the present as Manjot Bains notes.

"We're still treating 'boat people' the same way," she says, referencing the Sun Sea -- a cargo ship carrying 492 Sri Lankan Tamils seeking asylum in Canada two years ago. Refugee hearings for the migrants aboard are only now getting underway.

"This is a Canadian issue," concludes Sadhu Binning, a well-known artist and panelist at the symposium. "The government must own it and stop marginalizing the Komagata Maru." While Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized for the incident during a community event in 2008 at Bear Creek Park in Surrey, B.C., many continue to call for an official apology from the government.

"No one cares about an apology made at Bear Creek," adds Dr. Gurcharn S. Basran, a sociologist and community-based researcher. "The government should make a full apology on the floor of the House of Commons."