The descendant of an Indian immigrant rejected from entering Canada spoke before Mission council on April 19, asking the municipality to pay respect to a shameful chapter in B.C.’s history.
Raj Singh Toor is the grandson of Baba Puran Singh Janetpura, and vice president and spokesperson for the non-profit, Descendants of the Komagata Maru Society.
“I remember my grandfather telling us about his painful experience connected with this trip on the Komagata Maru,” Toor said. “The entire South Asian community supports us because we are the ones who suffered in losing loved ones and who deeply shared the pain.”
The SS Komagata Maru was a ship chartered in 1914 by wealthy Singapore businessman Gurdit Singh Sirhali, as a direct challenge to Canada’s former laws which prohibited ethnic Indians from immigrating to the country.
The ship departed Hong Kong and arrived in Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet carrying 376 Sikh, Muslim and Hindu passengers. Although they were all British subjects and held passports, they were barred from stepping off the ship.
They were refused food, water and medication, Toor said, and only B.C.’s South Asian community helped smuggle them provisions, even though it was illegal.
“They were starving, they were thirsty, and they were getting sick,” Toor said. He said Vancouver City Council passed a resolution rejecting the entry of “Hindu and Asiatic races,” stating they were a “serious menace to our civilians, both economically and socially.”
The Komagata Maru was forced to sail back to India, under a military escort. Upon arrival in Kolkata, British troops fired upon passengers, killing 20 and injuring many others. Eventually most of the passengers were given long prison sentences.
There are five families in Canada who are direct descendants of these passengers, and they’ve worked diligently to get the federal and provincial government to account for their actions, Toor said, adding the group’s never asked for compensation. The province apologized in 2008, followed by the federal government in 2016.
The delegation to council sought the renaming of a public street, or some form of public storyboard in recognition of the passengers of the Komagata Maru considering the importance of the South Asian community in Mission’s own history.
“This would be greatly appreciated, not only by descendants of the passengers, and by the South Asian Community in Canada, but by every Canadian who believes in treating all humans with dignity and respect,” Toor said.
The city councils of Brampton, Surrey, Delta and New Westminster have all dedicated public spaces (street names, parks or trails, storyboards) to the historical event as a result of the Descendants of the Komagata Maru Society’s efforts.
Coun. Ken Herar proposed creating a storyboard to commemorate the event, but also cautioned against rushing it before considering other tragedies stemming Canada’s past racial policies. He suggested other historical storyboards be created on forced residential schools for Indigenous children, and WW2’s forced internment camps for Japanese families.
“Education is a key force in eliminating hate,” Herar said. “Combining the three together sheds light on the errors of the past, and I feel it will be an informative learning experience as we move forward together.
“When comparing these incidents collectively, it’s a lack of acceptance and of inclusivity to individuals as a whole.”
This event in Canadian history was “glossed over” in his education, said Coun. Mark Davies, adding that it’s important to have re-telling on any storyboard be done by the families themselves.
“This is one of the paragraphs that my generation used to see in our history textbooks, where it was maybe two or three lines, describing ‘Oh, a ship was turned away.’ It really didn’t ever cover what actually happened.”
Consultations with the Mission Community Heritage Commission will take place around planning a future commemoration.