Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized Sunday for the 1914 Komagata Maru incident in which hundreds of Indians seeking a better life in Canada were turned away.

Harper was speaking to a crowd of about 8,000 people in Surrey, B.C., which has a large Indian community.

But as soon as he left the stage members of the Sikh community rushed to the podium denouncing the apology and said they wanted it made on the floor of the House of Commons.

"The apology was unacceptable," said Jaswinder Singh Toor, president of The Descendants of Komagatamaru Society.

"We were expecting the prime minister of Canada to do the right thing. The right thing was … like the Chinese Head Tax," said Toor, referring to Harper's full apology to the Chinese-Canadian community in 2006 for the head tax imposed on Chinese immigrants who came to Canada between 1885 and 1923.

The Komagata Maru sailed into Vancouver harbour with 376 people on May 23, 1914.

The dominion government would not allow the passengers to disembark and the vessel sat in the harbour for two months.

Eventually, the boat sailed back to Calcutta where it was met by police, and 20 people were killed as they disembarked while others were jailed.

Last May, the B.C. government issued an apology for the incident.

Many of those aboard the Komagata Maru were Sikhs.

Sikh community leaders want apology in Parliament

Following Harper's speech, Sikh community leaders asked the crowd for a show of hands on whether or not to accept the apology. Then they announced that the gathering had rejected it.

"The apology has been given and it won't be repeated," said Secretary of State Jason Kenney, who was accompanying Harper during the visit.

The apology marks the third such reconciliation Harper has made with embarrassing parts of Canada's past.

On June 11, Harper apologized to aboriginals who suffered abuse decades ago at Canadian residential schools, calling it "an important evolution in Canada's relationship with our first peoples."

In 2006, Harper issued a full apology to the Chinese-Canadian community for the head tax. He offered compensation to surviving Chinese-Canadians who paid the tax, as well as to widows and their children.

And, it is not without symbolism that Sunday's apology should be delivered in Surrey's Bear Creek Park.

Two teenage boys were found guilty of manslaughter in November 2006 for attacks — one fatal — on two elderly Indo-Canadian men in the park a year earlier.

The boys, who cannot be identified because they were 13 and 15 at the time of the attacks, had been charged with second-degree murder in the beating death of 76-year-old Shingara Singh Thandi of Surrey.

Thandi was beaten with baseball bats and robbed in a washroom in July 2005. He died in hospital three weeks later.

The youths were also found guilty of aggravated assault and robbery of Mewa Singh Bains, 83.

Problems with policy at forefront

The Komagata Maru incident highlighted inconsistencies in Canadian immigration policy at the time.

A 1910 order-in-council was passed requiring immigrants to come to Canada by continuous journey from their homeland. So, Gurdit Singh chartered the Japanese ship Komagata Maru and sold tickets for a continuous journey from the Punjab state to Canada.

However, a 1908 order-in-council required all "Asiatic" immigrants to be in possession of $200. The Indians argued the provision did not apply to them as they were British subjects. India was still a colony.

That July, the ship was ordered to sail but the Indians took over the ship and refused to leave.

On July 19, 125 Vancouver police officers and 35 special immigration agents attempted to board the vessel and were beaten back. Thirty were injured.

However, on July 23, under the guns of the naval cruiser HMCS Rainbow, the Komagata Maru was escorted out to sea and returned to India.

Corrections

  • The Canadian naval vessel that escorted the Komagata Maru from Vancouver harbour was HMCS Rainbow, not SS Rainbow as reported earlier.
    Aug 04, 2008 7:42 AM PT