12/09/2013 01:31 EST | Updated 02/08/2014 05:59 EST

Why the Desecration of the Komagata Maru Memorial Wasn't Shocking


"Shocked" is a word that's been thrown around a lot in reference to the story of a man urinating on the Komagata Maru memorial. The brazenness of the act in broad daylight and his proclamation to continue his actions, all point to obscene and disturbing behaviour. But many South Asians I've talked to aren't shocked at all.

Sad, yes. Disappointed, absolutely. But at the heart of this is the understanding that to be "shocked" means that you're experiencing the unexpected. With an air of realism borne from years tracing ingrained and systemic discrimination, these types of everyday occurrences of racism (bullying at school, comments at a bus stop, discrimination in job hiring) are nothing new to many in the community. But being resigned about the inevitability of racist acts is not the only issue I've been trying to work through.

Unlike the early media reports that focused on South Asians who were outraged by this incident, I argue that the desecration of the Komagata Maru monument -- a story of hate and ignorance -- is relevant for all Canadians. History never takes place in silos and the Komagata Maru episode is one chapter in a larger narrative of Canada coming to terms with racism. It is inclusive of other stories important to South Asians such as fighting for Canada in two World Wars while being denied basic civil rights, for using Vancouver as a base for transnational freedom movements against British Imperialism in India, and gaining the right to vote in 1947. The Komagata Maru is part of that narrative that includes the confiscation of land and internment of Japanese Canadians and the Head Tax levied on Chinese immigrants. All these moments echo to today and are still relevant because they need to inform self-reflection on how Canadians deal with each other and how government policies are made.

After information of the event began spreading virally on Facebook Thursday morning, I received many e-mails and texts from people motivated to collectively head down to the memorial and clean it up. The Vancouver Parks Board was on the ball immediately. But this will remain a superficial cleansing until we recognize this as a collective tragedy and internalize that motivation to consistently fight racism and discrimination through education and awareness.

The Komagata Maru memorial is a monument to a Canadian tragedy. This act is a desecration that affects all Canadians.