05/23/2013 05:28 EDT | Updated 07/23/2013 05:12 EDT

Wrestling With The Komagata Maru


On a cold Friday morning 99 years ago today, the Komagata Maru navigated its way into Burrard Inlet. May 23, 1914 was an important day for the press as the ship's arrival made front-page news. The media had been reporting the boat's imminent arrival for several days and this drove a large crowd of spectators down to the docks to gaze at the 376 passengers onboard. These 376 Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh passengers where more than just immigrants coming to Canada, they had become symbols of a catastrophic "Hindu Invasion" that would rob British Columbians of their jobs, spread sexual deviancy throughout Canada and (if letters to the editor were to be believed) bring an end to Western civilization itself. The Province asked its readers, wouldn't the presence of the Japanese on board inspire the Hindus with the idea of Asiatic conquest?

While the intercultural interactions between the ship's Indian, multifaith passengers and the entirely Japanese crew may have seemed novel to the Province reporter covering the event, in fact it reflected the everyday interactions of communities in Vancouver's vibrant Chinatown district. Those who read the contemporary local, English language Hindustanee, would know about the best Chinese restaurants in Vancouver and how regardless of race they did not discriminate against any customers -- unlike some of the restaurants in Gastown at the time. Although the goal of the paper was a Socialist revolution and the overthrow of the British Empire in India, it still devoted space to the epicurean delicacies that "surpass the restaurants of Western people".

Which brings me to why for years I wrestled with this 99-year-old story. For me, there always seemed to be two Komagata Marus. One was trotted out every year as a story about Canadian racism that quickly veered into the realm of apologies, financial compensation, and online comment boards filled with subtle (and overtly) racial slurs. The other Maru is a vivid story of resistance, cross cultural community ties, and a living story relevant to today's Canada. I received one Maru for the better part of my life. I wanted to learn more about the other.

The first Komagata Maru was introduced to me sandwiched between narratives of the Chinese Head Tax and Japanese Internment. It had no scope to breathe. No room for discussion and further explanation. And it was the only time I remember seeing people that looked like me in my school textbooks. The second Komagata Maru is more elusive. It took me years to unlearn the biases I had built up around the story, hear the voices of the pioneers and understand the history on its own terms. This Maru can be found in the books and films of Ali Kazimi and the articles by Hugh Johnston. This Maru lives on in buildings that still exist from that time, like the present day Vancouver Art Gallery and the Anglo-Indian ghost that haunts it today. It lives on in the governmental life of hockey legends and attempts at memorialization and commemoration that link unjust legal practices to present day injustices in Canada and around the world.

The real story of the Komagata Maru resonates beyond 1914, linking to freedom movements in India and the right to vote for South Asians in Canada. It addresses how we build communities, understand official multiculturalism, and how we remember our past. There is a reason why May 23, 1914 is still remembered today and how we remember it should be just as important as why we do.