What's the point of yet another apology for a historical wrong?
Apologizing for incidents like the Komagata Maru is performative — and doesn’t address systemic racism
This column is an opinion by Milan Singh, who was a lead researcher on Simon Fraser University Library's Komagata Maru Incident Project. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.
Today — July 23 — marks the date the Komagata Maru ship was forced to return to India after being held in Burrard Inlet for two months.
The majority of the ship's 376 passengers from India were denied entry in 1914 based on a racist regulation carefully designed to keep South Asians from migrating to Canada. After the passengers returned to India, the British police suspected that many of them were revolutionaries and went to arrest the charterer of the ship, Gurdit Singh. This resulted in a riot, followed by police opening fire on the passengers, and many of the passengers were held in prison.
The province of British Columbia was the first to apologize in 2008 and then the federal government in 2016. On June 10 of this year, the City of Vancouver joined the chorus of apologies for its involvement in the Komagata Maru incident.
But what's the point of another apology?
An apology for a historical wrong does a couple of things: It allows the government to virtue-signal by acknowledging actions from the past without having to worry about redress. It allows them to say, "the government used to be racist," but absolves them from self-reflecting on current issues of systemic racism in our present-day society.
This is not to say governments shouldn't acknowledge the experiences of the South Asian passengers on the Komagata Maru for the horrific conditions and treatment they faced, such as the lack of provisions like food and water. Rather, the focus should be on how these discriminatory policies created the conditions for other forms of unjust treatment, and how they continue to manifest in various ways in our current society.
By focusing on the Komagata Maru as a single incident of racism, the systematic ways in which so many others were discriminated against for decades are erased.
The Komagata Maru wasn't the first ship to be turned away, and it wasn't the last. Between 1908 and 1947, several ships were turned away based on the Canadian government's "continuous journey" regulation. One of the first challenges to this regulation were six South Asian passengers who arrived in Canada from Fiji in 1908.
The legislation was introduced in 1908 as a provision to the Immigration Act to stem the "influx" of South Asians arriving in Vancouver and remained on the books until 1947. The "continuous journey" regulation prohibited the landing of any immigrant that did not come to Canada via continuous journey directly from their country of origin. That affected South Asians because the length of the journey was too long from India to Canada, requiring ships to dock along the way for fuel.
And the regulation worked. Between 1910 and 1920, fewer than 120 South Asians arrived in Canada. They worked in essential businesses, providing much-needed labour at lumber mills and in agriculture, but other forms of systemic racism, such as being disenfranchised and denied the right to vote, continued to be barriers. The few South Asians that came to Canada in the early 1900s worked as labourers with low wages, living in communal bunkhouses with poor conditions.
Despite these apologies, the government seemingly ignores a similar phenomenon happening with temporary migrant workers today. In 2020, temporary migrant employees are tied to a specific employer with limited rights, low wages, and often work for long hours in unsafe environments, including a lack of protections from COVID-19 infection.
While provinces like B.C. now provide migrant workers with a place to quarantine, meals, and wages for 14 days upon arrival, the pandemic has forced us to put a spotlight on the deplorable living conditions of these workers, which has resulted in outbreaks on farms and at processing plants across the country.
And this doesn't even begin to address the racism that has surfaced — the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change recently reported that temporary migrant workers are stigmatized as "carriers of the illness" by wider Canadian society.
As the government apologizes for the Komagata Maru, it needs to see these events not as isolated incidents that are a blip in Canadian history, but rather as yet another example of systemic racism.
In a Canada where apologies have become commonplace, we still see history repeating itself.
Canada doesn't track race or ethnicity as part of its data collection around COVID-19, but advocates say the virus will kill overwhelming numbers of poor and racialized people — and evidence for this exists south of the border in the United States. People of colour, immigrants and temporary migrant workers are experiencing more discrimination, and higher-than-average rates of COVID-19 infection. While some support is available, the policies in place require reform.
And so I ask, what is the government apologizing for? What have we learned from the injustices of the past? What is being done to ensure systemic change?
And the answer is that apologies without change mean very little.
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