01/17/2014 02:15 EST | Updated 03/19/2014 05:59 EDT

Komagata Maru Means Going Beyond Apologies For Real Reconciliation

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The Komagata Maru is not an "incident." It is an episode in a long narrative and the latest chapter took place this week with police announcing there would be no criminal charges against a suspect for urinating on the downtown memorial.

When I first heard about the lack of charges on Tuesday, I felt a sense of incompleteness. There wasn't enough information explaining why the criteria for pressing charges weren't met. And the Vancouver Police Department's earlier statement that they had talked to the individual and resolved the matter seemed too neat. I wanted to know if the suspect recognized the severity of what he had done and felt genuine contrition for his actions.

After Thursday's press conference, my reservations were alleviated somewhat. When the desecration took place, I saw many Facebook posts from people who immediately recognized the suspect as someone they had seen and talked to from the Downtown Eastside.

Police Chief Jim Chu's claim that "This suspect needs the health care system, not the justice system" resonates as an understandable statement. Most tellingly, there was his apology, "I am sorry for what I did that day at the monument. I didn't want to hurt anyone."


In 1914, 376 migrants from India were denied entry to Canada based on their race, and forced to remain on a boat in Burrard Inlet for months.

The need for an apology raises questions on the nature of apologies themselves. The City of Vancouver has apologized for the Komagata Maru. The province of British Columbia's apology can be viewed at the Komagata Maru Museum at Ross Street Temple.

The prime minister's apology originally delivered at Bear Creek Park has been read into the official Hansard record of the Government of Canada by Minister Tim Uppal.

Even with these apologies we can't slip into the easy conclusion that an apology means an end to the conversation. An apology means always being accountable for any regression to policies that are detrimental to communities. They can't be used as a censor when new injustices are committed or as a way of wiping one's hands from obligations or responsibilities.

Similarly we should use the latest buzzword "reconciliation" with immense caution. There are definite benefits to the process of reconciliation but that process in itself isn't enough. Discussion and dialogue that is not coupled with practical action is only half the solution. And practical action is education, learning from our mistakes, passing those lessons to new generations, and making sure that people are aware of our positive and negative histories.

This requires us to see the Komagata Maru episode not just as a South Asian story but a trauma that all Canadians should remember and accept as their own story. Part of that process is internalizing that desecrating the Komagata Maru memorial should evoke anger from all of us.

It's important to view history with a long lens. Truly apologizing and reconciling ourselves to our past takes decades and is a daily exercise in combating racism and ignorance.