British Columbia

Harry Stevens' name stripped from federal building in Vancouver over Komagata Maru

The government building, formerly known as the Harry Stevens building, will revert back to its street address of 125 East 10th Avenue.

'Harry Stevens was the main player who sent the Komagata Maru back to India,' says advocate

People look at murals on the side of the former Harry Stevens building at 125 10th Ave. during a ceremony removing the name on Aug. 9, 2019. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The federal government has stripped one of its Vancouver buildings of its name in a move it calls a symbolic gesture of reconciliation to victims of the Komagata Maru, a steamship that arrived in Vancouver's harbour more than 100 years ago only to be turned back to India. 

The building, located at 125 East 10th Avenue, was named after Henry Herbert (Harry) Stevens, a populist politician and businessman who was elected to represent the riding of Vancouver as a Member of Parliament in 1911.

He was a well-known opponent to Asian immigration.

"Harry Stevens was the main player who sent the Komagata Maru back to India," said Raj Singh Toor, a spokesperson for the Descendants of the Komagata Maru Society at a ceremony Friday to announce the removal of Stevens' name from the building.

"He was openly making racist comments as well and gave a very hard time to those passengers who suffered a lot."

Toor said he emailed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about removing the name a few years ago.

According to Hugh J. M. Johnston's book The Voyage of the Komagata Maru, when Stevens spoke for the first time in Parliament, it was to talk about the "Asian threat to Canada's future as 'a white man's country.'" 

After Steven's election, Johnston said the rookie MP was able to install his associate, Malcolm R. J. Reid, who also opposed Asian immigration, to head the immigration office in Vancouver. 

"As the immigration staff in Vancouver could see, Stevens was the man making the decisions. In fact, the Immigration Office was run practically as an adjunct to his local Conservative association," wrote Johnston.

An archival picture shows hundreds of people gathered on a ship in a harbour.
The Komagata Maru incident incident was a stand off between Canada and a ship of 376 Sikh, Punjab and Hindu passengers in 1914. The passengers were British subjects, which entitled them to immigration to Canada but were refused on the basis of an exclusionary immigration policy. (Vancouver Public Library 13157)

It was in that context the Komagata Maru, a Japanese steamship, arrived on Canada's West Coast on May 23, 1914, anchoring in Vancouver's Coal Harbour. 

Nearly all of its 376 South Asian passengers were denied entry by the Vancouver immigration office, despite the passengers being British subjects, which entitled them to immigration to Canada.

The ship and its passengers languished in the harbour for two months, lacking proper access to food and water. Eventually, they were forced to return to India. Upon arrival, the ship was stopped by British soldiers. Nineteen passengers were killed and others imprisoned following an ensuing riot.

Stevens remained an MP until 1940, later representing the riding of Kootenay East.

In 2016, Prime Minister Trudeau apologized for the incident in the House of Commons, saying "Canada's government was, without question, responsible for the laws that prevented these passengers from immigrating peacefully and securely."

Watch Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's apology

Trudeau apologizes at the Komagata Maru reception for what happened in the House

7 years ago
Duration 1:23
The Prime Minister says he regrets the incident might take away from the Komagata Maru Apology

On Friday, Public Services Minister Carla Qualtrough and Defence Minister Harjit S. Sajjan, the MP for Vancouver South, were present for the ceremony outside the building, just east of Main Street.

Liberal MP Harjit Sajjan delivers remarks outside the former Harry Stevens building at 125 10th Ave. during a ceremony removing the former name on Aug. 9, 2019. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The ceremony also recognized a newly painted mural on the building, meant to commemorate the victims of the incident, as well as recognize the generosity of local Indigenous peoples in providing food and water to the passengers.

The mural was painted by Keerat Kaur, Alicia Point and Cyler Sparrow-Point.

Government officials say there are no plans to rename the building at this point; it will be referred to by its street address. 

The federal building at 125 10th Avenue has been stripped of its name with no plans to rename it. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

With files from Justin McElroy