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Komagata Maru and the Politics of Apologies

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Issue: 54 Section: Opinion Geography: Canada Vancouver, India, Surrey Topics: racism, apology

September 11, 2008

Komagata Maru and the Politics of Apologies

by Harsha Walia

The Komagata Maru in Vancouver, 1914. Photo: Komagatamaru Heritage Foundation

In the past few weeks, much has been written about Prime Minister Stephen Harper's so-called Komagata Maru apology, delivered at the "Gadhri Babian Da Mela" (Martyrs Festival) in Surrey, B.C., on August 3, 2008. The debate has focused on whether the apology needed to be made in the House of Commons for it to be afforded the respect and dignity it deserves. Many South Asian Canadians have expressed that the racist discrimination inherent to the Komagata Maru incident in 1914 is mirrored today in the treatment of members of the South Asian Canadian community as second-class citizens who are not considered worthy of a full apology from the Conservative government.

Beyond the location of the apology, there are other reasons to believe that the apology was disingenuous. Consider this: Harper left the stage before hearing the response of the 8,000 people gathered; the prime minister’s office pre-screened and approved the thank-you speech to be given by festival organizers; and Secretary of State for Multiculturalism and Canadian Identity Jason Kenney insisted that, “The apology has been given and it won't be repeated.”

History of Exclusion

In order to discourage South Asian migration, in 1908 the Canadian government amended the Immigration Act with the Continuous Journey Regulation, under which travel to Canada required continuous passage from the country of origin, and entry with at least $200 cash. In conjunction with policies such as the Chinese Head Tax, these restrictions were intended to reinforce a "White Canada" policy, restricting non-white migrants at a time when massive numbers of European immigrants-–over 400,000 in 1913 alone-–were entering Canada.

The Continuous Journey Regulation was emphatically challenged in May 1914, when 376 Indians aboard the Komagata Maru out of Hong Kong arrived in Vancouver harbour. The steam-liner was not permitted to dock and its passengers were deprived of food and water by Canadian authorities, subject to a legal challenge, intimidated, and finally coerced to depart by Royal Navy boats. The Komagata Maru was eventually forced back to India and the Continuous Journey Regulation remained in effect until 1947.

Symbolism and the politics of apologies

What is behind the string of recent Conservative government apologies, not only to Indo-Canadians, but also for the internment of Japanese-Canadians, the Chinese-Canadian Head Tax, and the survivors of the residential school system?

According to a May 16, 2008, Globe and Mail article, “The motivation and timing behind the announcements are the subject of much debate...What is clear is that many of those Canadians most affected by these acknowledgements live in some of the most competitive ridings in Canada--particularly in British Columbia and Central Canada.”

Government apologies have been politically expedient for the Conservatives. They are cognisant of the emotional appeal of apologising to a constituency that is otherwise cautious about voting for them. Savvy politicians are acutely aware that these apologies are not intended to further a substantial discourse about the state’s responsibility and complicity in perpetuating racist subjugation, or to bring about practical change in people's lives.

It is, in fact, just the opposite. Through the politics of symbolism, apologies are a painless way of achieving closure while reinforcing the superficial veneer of Canadian multiculturalism and benevolence.

While formal acknowledgements from governments-–particularly in light of their resistance to doing so-– are one part of a reconciliation process, movements pushing for government apologies rarely further the demands for restitution, reparations, transformation of power, abolition of a repressive system, or solidarity with other communities. Instead, such movements often reinforce the status quo by seeking equality with, and financial compensation from, an oppressive and colonial state that continues to maintain the power to grant or withhold citizenship.

Putting racism behind us

Such apologies are also a form of political opportunism that seeks our blind loyalty and gratitude for a government that hypocritically continues to perpetuate the very realities for which it is apologising. There is a strong temptation when hearing an apology, particularly for an incident that happened almost 100 years ago, to think that amends have been made and that racism is in the past.

In response to the Harper Government’s recent apology to Indigenous residential school survivors, the Quebec Native Women’s Association issued a statement, declaring, “In order for this apology to be considered genuine, more efforts must be undertaken to correct current oppressive measures under the Indian Act that prevent Indigenous peoples from prospering socially, culturally, politically and economically... And while we may recognize the Government’s admission of guilt, the fact remains that many obstacles must be removed in order to give meaning to the spirit and intent of their apology.”

Sid Tan, president of the Chinese Canadian National Council and the B.C. Coalition of Headtax Payers, has cautioned, “The historical injustices of the Chinese Head Tax are being replicated today through Canada’s exploitative guest-worker programs and restrictive immigration policies. The descendants of these policies will be demanding apologies in future decades. We should deal with this present reality and not just dwell on the past, especially if a history that we are supposed to have learnt from is repeating itself.”

Similarly, the story of the Komagata Maru is not one of a century ago; it is a story about today. News about immigration visa delays and restrictions; daily reports on racial profiling and no-fly lists; escalating workplace raids and deportations; and the Safe Third Country Agreement are happening right now.

Ali Kazmi’s award-winning film “Continuous Journey” highlights the clear links, often suppressed, between the Continuous Journey Regulation of 1908 and the present day Safe Third Country Agreement. This 2004 agreement does not allow (with minor exceptions) asylum seekers into Canada if they first arrive in the US, forcing most asylum seekers to make a non-interrupted journey through North America, resulting in at least a 40 per cent decrease in refugee applications in Canada.

When, where, and how the government apologises for the Komagata Maru will not change today’s devastating reality; it will only change through our determination and dedication to actively struggle against current immigration controls. It was a Conservative government that forced the Komagata Maru to turn back from the shores of Vancouver and it is a Conservative government today that is legislating policies such as Bill C-50, a recent amendment to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act already negatively impacting immigrants, primarily from South Asia.

On the eve of the anniversary of the South Asian subcontinent's formal independence from British colonial rule, the sacrifices of the 376 migrants aboard the Komagata Maru must be honoured. These heroes challenged not only the nature of Canada's exclusionary immigration laws, but as leaders or sympathizers of the revolutionary pro-Indian independence Ghadr party, they also understood how their treatment in Canada was related to their status as subjects of the British Empire. It is a little-known fact that upon returning to Calcutta, India, in September 1914, the Komagata Maru was stopped by a British gunboat and the passengers were placed under guard. A riot ensued and the British-Indian police opened fire, killing 20 passengers.

The realities of political and economic migration today are similarly embedded in a system of global apartheid and neo-liberal rule that demarcates the asymmetrical relations between rich and poor, North and South, citizen and subject.

As we remember both the legacy of the Komagata Maru and the formal Independence Day anniversaries that are upon us, we can draw some lessons from seemingly disparate histories that span the oceans. We must not be easily blinded by the false expectations-–and in this case false apologies-–rendered by governments to placate us. We must always be vigilant and never be silent or desensitized in the face of injustice, especially as injustice carries forth into the future. And we must always remember that the legacy of the Komagata Maru teaches us that no human being-–whether our ancestors or our future generations-– deserves less than a full measure of justice and our solidarity.

Harsha Walia is a Vancouver-based activist and writer. A version of this article originally appeared in the Indo-Canadian Voice.

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I admire your courage and strength

Hello, I am an Aboriginal Women University 2nd year and a mother of a 6month old baby girl. I am doing an article analysis of bill Clinton....oh, excuse me Stephen harper's idiot remark "Canada has no history of colonialism" Well for me being Aboriginal of course this hits me where it hurts and I couldn't have said it better in your statement in the other article. You are very good role model for us "visible-minorities" as those Euro-Canadians like to call us. Well as so I learned in my "ology" classes. I would like to applaud your articles, you give just gave me hope not to just role over and take the future but that there was a past and we damn well better not forget it. Thanks a bunch

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