One hundred years ago today, the Komagata Maru arrived in Burrard Inlet, not far from where the BCCLA offices are in present-day Vancouver. The ship carried 376 passengers from Punjab, India. Like most of the people living in Vancouver – and the rest of the Canada – at the time, those onboard the Komagata Maru were British subjects.
When it arrived in Vancouver, the Komagata Maru was not permitted to dock. Its passengers were not permitted to disembark. They were denied entry into Canada because they were in violation of Canada’s “continuous journey” regulation, an exclusion law which required migrants to arrive by a direct journey from their country of origin. This law, while facially neutral, was designed specifically to keep British Indians out of the Dominion of Canada, given that there was no direct sailing route between the two colonies. This law, like the Chinese head tax that came before it, was designed to discourage migration to Canada by “Asiatic” people and to maintain “White Canada Forever”. This law was discriminatory, plain and simple – denying entry to one class of colonial subject notwithstanding that British Indians and British Canadians all lived as British protected subjects, fought in Britain’s wars, and were part of the British Empire.
The standoff continued for weeks, as food and water began to run out on the ship. The exclusion order was challenged in British Columbia’s provincial courts and ultimately upheld. The government mobilized a military “escort” and ordered the ship to be pushed out to sea. The Komagata Maru was forced to depart from Vancouver on July 23, 1914.
In 2008, the Government of Canada and the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia officially apologized for the “Komagata Maru incident”. In its apology, the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia stated that it “deeply regrets that the passengers, who sought refuge in our country and our province, were turned away without the benefit of the fair and impartial treatment befitting a society where people of all cultures are welcomed and accepted.”
There and back again
Less than three years after these apologies were issued, the federal government tabled Bill C-49, another piece of facially neutral legislation which was discriminatory in effect. Proposed in October 2010, the bill was a direct response to the August 2010 arrival of the MV Sun Sea off the coast of British Columbia, and sought (among other things) to retroactively penalize asylum seekers who attempted to enter Canada through “irregular” mass arrivals (ie, by boat). The Sun Sea carried 490 Tamil asylum seekers from Sri Lanka, fleeing ongoing persecution following the end of a 26-year-long civil war. In the discourse surrounding Bill C-49 and its successor Bill C-4, the passengers of the Sun Sea were variously referred to as “bogus” refugees, “queue-jumpers” and terrorists, to justify the creation of a two-tiered system of unequal treatment.
The rhetoric justifying exclusion in the early 20th century was openly racist and relied on arguments about fundamental incompatibility between “eastern” and “western” civilization and culture. A century later, we look back on these attitudes with shame and think of them as being utterly un-Canadian.
The rhetoric justifying exclusion in the early 21st century is not so openly racist, though it’s hard to ignore the fact that many newcomers to Canada are non-white. The 21st century discourse centers around concepts such as who deserves to be in Canada, and who deserves to be Canadian. Distinctions are created within various categories themselves – the asylum seekers who come from “safe” countries and those who do not; the “deserving” and “legitimate” refugees versus those who are “bogus”; citizens who are “truly” Canadian (demonstrated by, among other things, the citizenship of their parents, by how much time they live in Canada, by whether they commit serious crimes) and those who are not. In the context of such sentiments, the government has introduced (and in most cases, passed) immigration legislation entrenching such arbitrary and discriminatory distinctions. Plus ça change …
We need to learn from the lesson of the Komagata Maru that arbitrary and discriminatory distinctions are not what being Canadian is about. Last week, the BCCLA and the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers launched a petition to stop Bill C-24 from becoming law. Bill C-24 literally turns millions of Canadians into second-class citizens, creating a class of citizens who have fewer rights, who can be subject to exile as punishment for certain criminal offences. To learn more about Bill C-24, visit the BCCLA’s primer. To share our nifty infographic, click here. And sign our petition, which has gathered over 20,000 signatures already. Let’s not give Canadians in the early 22nd century reason to look back on us in shame.