British Columbia

Vancouver city council formally apologizes for historic, racist actions around Komagata Maru

A motion to formally apologize for actions of members of the 1914 Vancouver city council and declare May 23 as “Komagata Maru Remembrance Day” in Vancouver passed unanimously on Wednesday.

Province and federal government have previously issued formal apologies for actions around 1914 incident

The Komagata Maru, a Japanese charter ship, arrived in Vancouver on May 23, 1914, carrying 376 people from India who were British subjects under the Commonwealth entitled to come to Canada. The vast majority of them were turned away.

On Wednesday, Vancouver City Council unanimously passed a motion to formally apologize for actions of members of the 1914 city council regarding the Komagata Maru incident and declare May 23 as "Komagata Maru Remembrance Day."

The Komagata Maru, a Japanese charter ship, arrived in Vancouver on May 23, 1914, carrying 376 passengers from India who were then British subjects under the Commonwealth and entitled to immigration to Canada. They were denied entry by immigration officials, based on the prevailing discriminatory practices at the time that called for a curtailing of Asian immigration. 

The ship remained docked in the harbour for two months, its passengers lacking proper access to food and water. The ship was eventually forced to return to India.

Upon arrival in what is now Kolkata, India, the ship was stopped by British soldiers. Nineteen passengers were killed and others imprisoned following an ensuing riot.

The provincial government formally apologized for the Komagata Maru incident in May 2008, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized on behalf of the federal government in the House of Commons in 2016.

Wednesday's motion before city council was brought by Coun. Jean Swanson.

Her motion noted the words of Vancouver's 1914 city council which passed a resolution saying it was "unalterably opposed to the admittance of Hindus and other Asiatic races into this country" and that "... these people would prove a serious menace to our civilization, both economically and socially."

Raj Singh Toor's grandfather was aboard the Komagata Maru in 1914. (Jesse Johnston/CBC)

Raj Singh Toor, whose grandfather was aboard the Komagata Maru, is the spokesperson for the Descendants of the Komagata Society. Toor was one of the community members instrumental in bringing Wednesday's motion forward. 

He described how in 1914, then-Vancouver mayor Truman Baxter organized an anti-Asian rally to prevent the passengers aboard the ship from disembarking.

Toor described the words of popular politician H.H. [Harry] Stevens, who was one of the speakers at the rally, as capturing the atmosphere of that time.

"He stated ... 'I intend to stand absolutely on all occasions on this one great principle of a white country and a white British Columbia,'" said Toor.

Swanson said the motion to apologize is the first step forward.

"This motion is really a little thing. A couple of statements. What we do need is action. We need to implement a non-racist city," she said during the council meeting.

Mayor Kennedy Stewart echoed her comments.

"This story is an important part of our history ... I think this is a very good exercise, but I agree with Coun. Swanson that this is a good step but we do have to take more action."

With files from The Early Edition


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