Mr. Speaker, I would like to begin by acknowledging the hard work done by many of my colleagues that has brought us to this historic moment here today.
From my own caucus, I thank the members for and for their tireless advocacy. They have petitioned the Canadian government for years to make the apology that we will make today. I thank them for their commitment to this cause.
From the opposition benches, special mention must be made of the members for , , and the former member for Surrey North. Each deserves recognition for the work they have done to seek resolution for victims and their families, as do the many organizations that have sought the same, in particular the Professor Mohan Singh Memorial Foundation.
Today I rise in the House to offer an apology on behalf of the Government of Canada for our role in the Komagata Maru incident.
More than a century ago a great injustice took place. On May 23, 1914, a steamship sailed into Burrard Inlet in Vancouver. On board were 376 passengers of Sikh, Muslim, and Hindu origin. Those passengers, like millions of immigrants to Canada before and since, came seeking better lives for their families, greater opportunities, and a chance to contribute to their new home. Those passengers chose Canada. When they arrived here, they were rejected.
They were rejected because, at the time, the Government of Canada had pRightassed the Continuous Passage Act. In accordance with this act, only passengers arriving on a continuous journey were authorized to disembark in Canada. This measure would have prevented immigrants coming from far-off lands, such as India, to enter Canada, because at the time it was impossible to travel such a distance without making a stop along the way. When the Komagata Maru
arrived in Canada, just a few passengers were authorized to disembark.
Under this act, the ship and those on board were forced to turn around. Members of the local Sikh community tried to convince the authorities to reconsider their decision, but they stood firm.
On July 23, 1914, two months after their arrival, the Komagata Maru and its passengers were escorted out of the port by the Canadian Army. They were forced to return to India. Nineteen passengers were killed, and many others were imprisoned.
Canada does not bear alone the responsibility for every tragic mistake that occurred with the Komagata Maru and its passengers, but Canada's government was, without question, responsible for the laws that prevented these passengers from immigrating peacefully and securely.
For that, and for every regrettable consequence that followed, we are truly sorry.
We apologize, first and foremost, to the victims of the incident. No words can erase the pain and suffering they experienced. Regrettably, the passage of time means that none are alive to hear our apology today. Still, we offer it, fully and sincerely, for our indifference to your plight, for our failure to recognize all that you had to offer, for the laws that discriminated against you so senselessly, and for not apologizing sooner. For all these things, we are truly sorry.
I also wish to apologize to the descendants of the passengers of the Komagata Maru, including those who are here with us today. We can never know what your lives would have been like had your relatives been welcomed to Canada, the way in which your lives would have been different, and the ways in which Canada would have been enriched. Those possibilities are lost to history, and for that, and to you, we apologize.
Just as we apologize for past wrongs, so too must we commit ourselves to positive action, to learning from the mistakes of the past, and to making sure that we never repeat them. That is the unique promise and potential of Canada.
We believe that everyone deserves a real chance to succeed, regardless of who they are or where they are from. Canada's South Asian community is a daily example of this success and of our success.
We believe and we know that diversity is a strength, that we are strong, not in spite of our differences, but because of them. We believe in the values enshrined in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, including multiculturalism.
Before I finish, I would like to acknowledge one more member who has helped to bring the Komagata Maru incident to our national attention, our .
On an interesting historical note, before entering political life, the minister was the commanding officer of the British Columbia Regiment, Duke of Connaught's Own, the very same regiment that once forced out the Komagata Maru. A century ago, the minister's family might well have been turned away from Canada.
Today, the minister is an essential member of this government and sits here in this House. He sits in a House that includes immigrants, that includes the daughters and sons, and granddaughters and grandsons of immigrants.
The very makeup of the House should remind us all that when we have the choice between opening our arms to those in need or closing our hearts to them, we must always choose the more compassionate path. When we see injustice, we must speak up and attempt to make things right. When we make mistakes, we must apologize and recommit ourselves to doing better.
Canada is a country unlike any other. We are all blessed to call it home. Let us always endeavour to do better and to be better. Let us do that in honour of the victims of the Komagata Maru incident, and in honour of every courageous person who leaves behind family and familiar things to bring to Canada the very best of who they are.
Mr. Speaker, today, I rise to join with the and all members of the House in gathering to reflect on a tragic chapter in our country's history.
As Canadians, we have always taken pride in our country's commitment to our shared values of justice, freedom, tolerance, and respect for human rights.
We are rightly proud of our country's openness to newcomers from all over the world. Canada has been enriched by the generations of hard-working men and women who have come to our country to seek a better life. Ours is a society that offers opportunity for all, regardless of one's background. It is a life free from the violence, persecution, and insecurity that so many have been forced to flee.
However, there have been times when Canada has not fulfilled these aspirations. We must recognize and try to set right those periods in our past when we have not lived up to our values.
We have to reflect on and learn from times in which Canada acted unjustly.
The tragic events that we are gathered here today to remember was one of those lapses.
When the vessel Komagata Maru arrived in Vancouver, on May 23, 1914, most of the nearly 400 passengers onboard were immigrants from Punjab. They were Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims, and all British subjects, just like Canadians at the time. They were simply seeking a better life in Canada. Twenty-four were allowed in and the rest were not. The ship and its passengers were detained in a harbour for two months, until they were escorted out on July 23 and sent back to India. When they arrived in Calcutta, a disturbance broke out in which 19 passengers were shot and killed and dozens more were arrested.
This journey resulted from Canada's refusal to welcome them. It ended in terrible tragedy and great hardship for those aboard the Komagata Maru.
It is for that refusal that the Canadian government, and all of us here, stand today to recognize the terrible events that occurred when Canada failed to accept those seeking shelter in a new home.
This side of the House welcomes today's apology. We wish to join with the government in offering a deep and sincere commitment to honour the memories of those who suffered and to learn the lessons of this tragedy.
Today's apology is the culmination of a process of recognition that began with steps taken by our previous Conservative government about a decade ago. This process began with the previous prime minister and member for 's public recognition of the injustice committed against the passengers of the Komagata Maru in 2006. It was followed by his apology to the community in Vancouver in 2008.
That marked the first time the Government of Canada gave official recognition of this tragedy, and the recognition was backed up by a deep and meaningful commitment to never let the memory of this event fade. Our Conservative government created the community historical recognition program, which offered support to Indo-Canadian groups seeking to acknowledge, commemorate, and educate Canadians about the Komagata Maru. This program supported the development of books, documentaries, websites, and other resources so that future generations could learn from this tragic event.
Our government was also very proud to support the first public museum dedicated to the Komagata Maru, opened at the Khalsa Diwan Society in Vancouver, in 2012, and the first public monument in Vancouver's Harbour Green Park.
In 2014, we were all proud in the House when Canada Post commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Komagata Maru with a special stamp.
It is through actions like these that we sought to recognize this historic injustice and ensure that future generations understood the mistake that was made. We take these actions because we want to live up to our own values.
We cannot change the past, but we can demonstrate that Canada has changed. No nation can grow without re-examining our past and seeking to move beyond our ancient prejudices. We can show those communities, who have been wronged, that their tragedies are understood and their experiences are valued.
Today, Canada's South Asian population is over one million strong. Since the Komagata Maru, we have welcomed successive generations of Indo-Canadians to our country. These hard-working men and women are devoted to their families and their communities, and their presence makes our country stronger.
They are an integral part of the Canadian family. Their entrepreneurial spirit means more prosperity for their families and for all Canadians. They are public officeholders at every level of government, having sought and won the support of their fellow Canadians as leaders.
Their values are interwoven with ours, creating a nation that has been more vibrant and welcoming in recent years than at any other time in our history.
We only need to look at the recent tragedy in Fort McMurray to see how the generosity of every Canadian community can lift us all. One of the first to open their doors to the evacuees in Edmonton was the Guru Nanak Sikh Society. I must mention that the members of the Singh Khalsa Sewa Club in Brampton loaded their trucks with supplies and drove for days to reach northern Alberta to help.
Mr. Speaker, it is an honour for my colleagues and me to participate in today's official apology for the historic tragedy of the Komagata Maru
, an apology that has been much too long in coming.
The leader of the official opposition was absolutely right when she said that the previous government, led by the prime minister of the day, who is now the member for , did indeed apologize to the community, which was greatly appreciated.
Today in the House, that act, which I would describe as an act of contrition on behalf of all Canadians for that historic tragedy, is being made official.
Let us call a spade a spade. We all know that racist, exclusionary policies resulted in the Canadian tragedy of the Komagata Maru.
It is, indeed, important to apologize and it is also important to remember why we apologize. Members may recall, as I do, just a few short years ago when another ship arrived in B.C., the MV Sun Sea, and the reception that it got with haz-mats and protective gear for all the people going onto that ship. That was eventually struck down by the Supreme Court, but it reminds us that it is not just in history that these events take place. Those same attitudes can exist today. That is why we all have to be mindful of our obligation to be fair to people who are in distress coming from other countries, as was the case with those Tamils coming in just a couple of years ago.
New Democrats have been proud to stand with thousands in the South Asian community who have fought tirelessly for this official apology for the Komagata Maru tragedy. My former colleague, Jasbir Sandhu, referenced by the , led the fight for an official apology in Parliament and moved an opposition day motion to that effect. My friend and former colleague, Jinny Sims, who is here with us today, spoke eloquently in the House in favour of an official apology and fought for a more welcoming Canada more broadly.
As has been pointed out, it has been just over 100 years since the Komagata Maru came to shore at the Port of Vancouver. It was a boat full of people, full of families, seeking safety and a better life. They were prevented from disembarking and the ship remained in Burrard Inlet for a full two months. We can imagine the conditions. They were denied basic necessities, like water and food, and those conditions actually worsened, of course.
In the end, all but 20 of those 376 passengers were sent back home to face grave danger. When the Komagata Maru arrived in Calcutta, police fired on passengers and 19 were killed. Many others were imprisoned and, let us be clear once again, it was racism, pure and simple, that put our fellow human beings at such risk.
The continuous journey regulation was a racially motivated one, just like the Chinese head tax, which the previous government, almost immediately after its election, apologized for in this place, and it also did immeasurable harm by keeping South Asians out of Canada. Mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters were jailed, and worse, because they were not welcome here in Canada. It was a horrific chapter in the history of a country that has come to recognize diversity and tolerance as great strengths.
The story of the Komagata Maru is a Canadian tragedy. People left their homeland in search of a better life with the hope of achieving their dreams here in Canada. They were wrong. Three hundred and sixty-five passengers were sent back to where they came from simply because of their origins. They lived through imprisonment and exploitation, and worse still, 19 of them were shot dead by the authorities on their arrival in India. It was pure racism.
Today, we finally apologize, but we also stand in solidarity with those who continue to fight for freedom and dignity in India and Canada. We owe it to those who were turned away more than 100 years ago to continue the struggle for justice.
To ensure that this kind of tragedy is never again repeated, we owe it to them to continue building a more welcoming Canada, where diversity is celebrated, where families can reunite with their loved ones, and where the most vulnerable are given refuge, not turned away in their hour of need.
The victims of the Komagata Maru deserve nothing less. Canadians deserve nothing less.
In memory of the victims of the Komagata Maru, it is our duty to prevent such a tragedy from ever happening again. Together we must build a more welcoming Canada where diversity is valued and where no one is left behind in situations of distress.
[Member spoke in Punjabi as follows:]
Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa, Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh.
Mr. Speaker, if there is one thing that Canada and Quebec have in common, it is that they are both welcoming nations populated by warm, curious, and very friendly people. Our respective identities have been shaped by immigration and continue to evolve through the contribution of newcomers.
That is why it is so important that we revisit this dark episode in Canada's history here today.
Three hundred and seventy-six people were turned away when they arrived in British Columbia in 1914 on board the Komagata Maru from Hong Kong. The vast majority of the passengers were Sikh. Those 376 individuals were held captive on the ship and then sent back across the Pacific Ocean to face their fate, which everyone knew would be grim.
Those 376 people were made to suffer solely because of our ignorance and racism. Their removal was justified by the regulations of the day, which had one simple objective: to turn away any newcomers who came from Asia. As we all know, immigrants from Europe were welcomed with open arms.
History has shown that Canada has not always been known for its openness. The Government of Canada's apology to the Sikh community involves a duty to remember. Each and every one of us has a duty to remember all those who have made Quebec and Canada what they are today.
May this reminder impel us to make room for everyone who will join us in building the future of this country.
Mr. Speaker, I want to thank all my colleagues for giving me this opportunity to add a few words.
This has been a profoundly moving moment in the House, particularly because we are so honoured to have so many people here in the galleries whose families and lives have been directly touched. Although this was 102 years ago, it was a shameful episode in Canadian history.
To all of them present here, and to all of their families, and to anyone they can reach out to whose lives have been scarred by the knowledge that a country like Canada could turn away hundreds of people on the Komagata Maru, we are not just sorry but we reach out and ask for their personal forgiveness. We ask that they communicate that to everyone in their community.
This will never happen again. We know that because Canada is a changed country, although in 1939 we turned away the MS St. Louis from Halifax harbour. We know that racism, anti-Semitism, indifference, and intolerance have no place in this country.
Many good words have been said. I thank my , the , the leader of the New Democratic Party, and my colleague from the Bloc. They all had strong words, not one of which I would disagree.
However, I want to add thanks as the only leader who happens to be a British Columbian. I want to recognize the contribution of someone who was the first person in political life recently who raised the issue of the scandal. That was the first Indo-Canadian elected as an MLA, Moe Sihota, an NDP member from British Columbia, who raised this issue and fought for it. He was also minister of environment, which is how I knew him.
I want to add my thanks to him for reminding us that it is never ever too late. We are Canadian, after all, we are good at it. It is never too late to say, “I'm sorry”, and we are deeply sorry.