06/30/2012 09:55 EDT | Updated 08/29/2012 05:12 EDT

Why I Love Canada: We're an Ethnic Hodge-Podge


There is no question that modern Canada is an ethnic hodgepodge. Take a look at its urban centres -- and increasingly the rural ones too -- and you see all the culture and calamity that make this country great. Toronto is diverse beyond compare and home to countless culturally distinct neighbourhoods.

One of the best preserved of these -- a three-block strip of Gerrard Street East lined with delicious-smelling restaurants and department stores displaying sari-clad mannequins -- is Little India. This tiny strip of the city, and the population it represents, are an unmistakable symbol of Canada's much-lauded multiculturalism.

It is precisely this welcoming, heterogeneous Canada that makes the contrast with elements of our past so stark. And as our nation's birthday approaches, it would perhaps do us some good to remember how recently our ideas about immigrants changed. At the turn of the 20th century, Canadian immigration was in full-swing. It was no accident, however, that this influx was exclusively European in nature -- maintaining Canada's Euro-pedigree was then a federal priority. At the time, no group of would-be immigrants experienced the impact of such discrimination more than our fellow British subjects from the Indian subcontinent. Through subtle but intentional policies, the Canadian government succeeded in keeping the hoards of aspiring Indian-Canadians at bay and the "whiteness" of its body politic intact.

Independent filmmaker and writer, Ali Kazimi, first reminded Canadians of the somewhat sordid nature of the era in 2004 with the release of Continuous Journey, a documentary of the events surrounding the Komagata Maru, a ship carrying Indian immigrants that arrived in Vancouver harbour in 1914. His film chronicles the first years of the 20th century, a time when the Canadian government was bent on populating our rather spacious country (particularly the West), but had particular ideas about who they wanted to invite.

Before the ship carrying 376 Indian men, women, and children reached our shores, Canada had managed to limit its Indian population to a few thousand, mostly men, through policies that made "legal" entry difficult. In particular, Canada's "continuous journey" regulations forbid entry to any Indian immigrant arriving on a vessel that had docked in another country along the way. Given the distance between the two British colonies, it is unsurprising that such a regulation proved effective. Before Kazimi, few Canadians had likely heard of the Komagata Maru, but the fate of the ship and its passengers became an unwanted test case for Canada's hitherto (successfully) selective immigration.

Kazimi recently released an illustrated history of the event entitled, Undesirables: White Canada and the Komagata Maru, as a compliment to his earlier documentary and I had the opportunity to hear him speak about the event at the book's launch in late May.

Ultimately, the passengers of the Komagata Maru never set foot on Canadian soil. Fearing an unfavourable ruling, officials refused the ship's occupants access to Canadian courts. The passengers were detained for two months aboard the ship, provisioned for as long as possible by an array of Canadian advocates, before being escorted out of Vancouver harbour by (our only) gunship. Canadian homogeneity had won the day.

Given the present diversity of Canadian society, it may seem fatuous to suggest that Canada harbours any sympathy for the exclusionist policies that pervaded its youth. Indeed, Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized for the Komagata Maru incident in 2008 (many Sikhs did not accept) and Canada is undeniably multicultural.

But, as Kazimi reminds us, the events surrounding the Komagata Maru and the "continuous journey" regulation continue to be euphemized. The Globe and Mail's Mark Hume recently characterized the event in terms of British Columbian policy -- failing to mention the systemic nature of Canada's exclusionary policies -- and certainly neglected to reference William Lyon Mackenzie King, whose work inspired the regulation, when he opined:

That Canada should desire to restrict immigration from the Orient is regarded as natural, that Canada should remain a white man's country is believed to be not only desirable for economic and social reasons, but highly necessary on political and national grounds.

Lest we forget.