Winnipeg residents say promises broken over development of Komagata Maru memorial park

A tight-knit group of residents in Winnipeg’s northwest have turned to open public protest in order to see a long-ago promised commemorative park finally take shape in their area. 
Residents of Winnipeg's Waterford Green neighbourhood protest at the Manitoba Legislature on Saturday. They want action on what they say are broken promises relating to a park in their area meant to memorialize the Komagata Maru Incident. (Travis Golby/CBC)

A tight-knit group of residents in Winnipeg's northwest have turned to open public protest in order to see a long-ago promised commemorative park finally take shape in their area. 

People who live in Waterford Green in the Inkster Park area lined the steps of the Manitoba Legislature on Saturday, many holding signs with blunt messages including, "Betraying is what we cannot do in Canada," and "Political stunt or personal gain?" 

They say they've been waiting years for government and a property developer to act on the construction of a park meant to memorialize a dark chapter of intolerance against the Sikh community, what's known as the Komagata Maru incident. 

The 1914 incident saw the government of the day turn away a Vancouver-landed ship carrying hundreds of South Asian migrants, most of whom were Sikhs. 

The incident holds deep significance for the Sikh community and led to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau formally apologizing in the House of Commons in 2016 for Canada's role in it.

That was the same year the residents say they were promised the commemorative park. 

But since then, nothing has happened despite meeting after meeting with various government officials and the local developer, said Jagdev Pannu, who is the spokesperson for the residents. 

"It's a pretty bad thing because Komagata Maru is a significant incident of Canadian Sikh history," Pannu said. "Five years gone, there's nothing built … Please fulfil your promise." 

On a visit to the proposed park area Saturday evening, CBC found a large section of it with the grass cut, but devoid of any park-like environment such as picnic tables, a playground or even a sign denoting a name. There are few trees. 
Jagdev Pannu stands in part of the park land behind his home which is covered with overgrown natural grass and weeds. (James Turner/CBC )

Residents said it's become a de facto dog park and they often have to call the city to get the grass cut. 

Another large section is overrun with wild grasses which attract rodents. Senior citizens gather each day in a small shady section at the park's southern edge and have to bring their own seating. 

Pannu, who lives on Singh Trail backing directly onto the park site, showed off a conceptual plan marked "For discussion purposes only, plans subject to change" that was created by a planner but never acted on. It depicts proposed amenities including a water feature and shade structure. 

'A mistake occurred, that's the bottom line,' area MP tells residents in 2020

Federal Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux and his MLA daughter Cindy Lamoureux are aware of the residents' complaints. Both appeared at a gathering to talk to them at the park land in August 2020, which was live-streamed to Facebook. 

"We believe that something should be put on this park in representation of [the Komagata Maru], Cindy Lamoureux said at the time. 

Kevin Lamoureux told the crowd he understood their concerns and would advocate to Winnipeg city council for them. 

He said the city is the entity which is responsible for allocating resources for the park. 
Older members of the community congregate on the southwest end of the park land, which is the only area of shade. Due to a lack of amenities, many bring their own seating. (James Turner/CBC )

He said Trudeau's apology in the House of Commons sparked a meeting between him and developers and investors who said they wanted to commemorate the Komagata Maru incident. 

"It was universally well-accepted a number of years ago. [The name] was never registered with the City of Winnipeg for whatever reason," he said. "At the end of the day a mistake occurred, that's the bottom line. Should it have been? Yes." 

A city spokesperson said there was a past meeting between residents and city officials to discuss the park name and amenities. "However, there was no formal request made to name the space," David Driedger told CBC in an email. 

To register the name, the city said residents would have to submit a request through its Welcoming Winnipeg initiative. 

However the city's own description says the program is meant to bolster reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples — to "resolve the absence of Indigenous perspectives, experiences and contributions to the stories remembered and commemorated." 

"The installation of park amenities would be subject to approval of the project and funding," Driedger said. 

Migrants killed in riot after being turned away from B.C. coast

The Komagata Maru steamship arrived on Canada's West Coast on May 23, 1914, anchoring in Vancouver's Coal Harbour. Its arrival was a direct challenge to Canada's immigration rules at the time, which had grown increasingly strict and discriminatory. 

The ship was immediately greeted by immigration officials who refused to let its 376 passengers disembark.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is applauded as he formally apologizes for a 1914 government decision that barred most of the passengers of the Komagata Maru from entering Canada, in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, May 18, 2016. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Twenty people determined to be returning residents were eventually permitted entry, but no one else stepped foot off the boat for the two months it was there. 

The Komagata Maru was formally ordered out. Four days later under the guns of the naval cruiser HMCS Rainbow, the ship was escorted out to sea and began the journey to Calcutta.

Upon its return to India it was met by British soldiers. Twenty passengers were killed in an ensuing riot, and others were jailed.

With files from the CBC's Travis Golby and Sean Kavanagh