05/23/2014 09:43 EDT | Updated 07/23/2014 05:59 EDT

Komagata Maru 100th Anniversary: Descendants Surprised By Stories


Descendants of two B.C. residents, who were on opposite sides of the Komagata Maru story, are sharing their reflections today on the 100th anniversary of  what both agree was a dark chapter in Canadian history.

On May 23, 1914, the Komagata Maru, a Japanese steamship, arrived in Vancouver's Coal Harbour carrying 376 passengers from Punjab, India, seeking asylum.

It spent two months at anchor. The government refused to allow its passengers to leave the ship.

Eventually it was forced to return to India where 20 of the passengers died when in an ensuing riot.

Sukhi Ghuman says she didn't learn that her great-grandfather Harnam Singh Sohi was one of the men on board the Komagata Maru until she was in university

"I was a first-year student at UBC and I was taking Punjabi 100, which is like a language course and my Punjabi professor had written a poem about the Komagata Maru and I remember this was the first time I had heard about it," she said.

It was her professor who told her great-grandfather was on board the ship.

"I was really shocked, like, why didn't the Komagata Maru come up as part of my elementary school or high school curriculum? And I even majored in history at UBC and the only reason it came up at UBC was because I was taking a Punjabi language course."

Ghuman thinks this part of B.C.'s history should be included in the curriculum.

She says her great-grandfather came here looking for the good life she now has.

"We came to this country for a better life and I truly believe I do have a better life because this is where I live."

While Sohi never got over his treatment and resented the Canadian government, she says he was always proud his children and grandchildren were able to make a life for themselves here.

Michael Blake 'embarrassed'

Today is also a day of reflection for B.C. native Michael Blake, whose great-grand-uncle Conservative MP H.H. Stevens was one of the more vocal opponents to Indian immigration and played a role in turning away the Komagata Maru.

His quote is featured in the Komagata Maru exhibit currently at the Vancouver Maritime Museum.

"I challenge any man living to bring out a single instance in the whole history of the Indian nation to show that their civilization has done anything at all to uplift the other races of the world. I say their civilization is unproductive of good to the human race as a whole."

The exhibit's curator Vicky Tran says when Stevens delivered the quote at a meeting in 1914, it was met with thunderous applause.

Today his great-grand-nephew Michael Blake, who is a jazz musician living in New York, calls Stevens an ignorant man.

"I was sad to know that side of my family was connected to the incident in such an embarrassing way," he said.

"What surprises me in that statement is that somebody would not recognize the incredible wealth of knowledge that comes out of India."

Both B.C. and Canada have since issued apologies for their handling of the affair.

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