Thursday, March 15, 2007

Ottawa considers options to recognize 1914 ship incident

Globe and Mail
14 March 2007

OTTAWA -- A memorial in Vancouver's Stanley Park and a commemorative stamp are among the options the federal government is considering as part of an official recognition of the Komagata Maru incident.

Whether Prime Minister Stephen Harper will make a formal apology in Parliament for Canada's rejection of 354 migrants of Indian origin in 1914 is still a question mark for the Indo-Canadian community.

Conservative MP Jim Abbott, who spent the past four months consulting on the issue for the government, presented a report with his findings to members of the community over the weekend.

The Department of Canadian Heritage helped Mr. Abbott put together a summary of what happened to the passengers aboard the Komagata Maru after a six-week study of historical documents.

"I think it's a celebration, I think it's where we were and where we are now," Mr. Abbott said in an interview.

"Where we were was excluding [354] people from Canada in a process that was completely legal at the time but that process wouldn't be reflective of where we are as a nation now."

The Komagata Maru was a ship chartered out of Hong Kong to carry Indian passengers. When it arrived in Vancouver, it carried 376 passengers, most of them of Sikh origin. Twenty-two of the migrants were deemed to be returning residents and allowed to disembark, but the rest were barred entry because of Canada's immigration laws. The regulations held that immigrants must come to Canada directly, and Asiatic immigrants were required to pay a tax of $200.

The ship was escorted out of Canadian waters and sent back to British India. When police attempted to transport the passengers to the Punjab region a riot ensued, and 20 people were shot dead.

The Indo-Canadian community has long advocated for a formal apology and commemoration of what happened to the passengers aboard the ship. Mr. Abbott's report noted a general consensus among the various groups and individuals consulted over the course of 41 meetings that the government help fund a memorial project.

He said the next step is to create a small ad-hoc committee from within the Indo-Canadian community to recommend what types of projects should be funded.

On the issue of a formal public apology, Mr. Abbott's report was vague. He wrote, "there was no consensus or agreement on this issue."

Mr. Harper recognized the incident in a speech in British Columbia last summer.

But Jasbir Sandhu, a spokesman for the Professor Mohan Singh Foundation, said an apology is the one thing upon which the community insists.

"The conservation starts with a formal apology in the Canadian Parliament," said Mr. Sandhu, a longtime advocate of government recognition of the Komagata Maru incident. "It's not a matter of money, it's a matter of closing a chapter and letting the healing begin."

NDP Leader Jack Layton called for an apology earlier this year. Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion committed a future Liberal government to an apology during a visit to Vancouver on Monday, but critics point out that the party had ample opportunity when it was in power.

The Conservatives have taken many steps over their past year in power to strengthen ties with Canada's ethno-cultural communities. Last summer, the government issued a formal apology and some economic redress to Canada's Chinese community for the application of a head-tax on immigrants. Mr. Harper has also publicly recognized the Armenian genocide, and appointed high-profile MP Jason Kenney as Secretary of State for Multiculturalism.