Toronto

GTA filmmaker says formal apology for Komagata Maru incident long overdue

For one GTA filmmaker, hearing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's formal apology in the House of Commons for the Komagata Maru incident in 1914, was an emotional experience-- and one that's been long overdue.

Film about Komagata Maru incident to be screened at International Film Festival of South Asia

'Continuous Journey' tells the story of how the Komagata Maru steamship arrived on Canada's West Coast on May 23, 1914, anchoring in Vancouver's Coal Harbour-- and how it was eventually turned away. (IFFSA Toronto)
 For one GTA filmmaker, hearing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's formal apology in the House of Commons for the Komagata Maru incident in 1914, was an emotional experience-- and one that's been long overdue. 
The apology came just over a century after hundreds of Sikh, Muslim and Hindu passengers were denied entry into Canada and forced to return to India, where a violent fate awaited them. 
Film director Ali Kazimi said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's apology showed an understanding that "this was not just one event, but there were laws that Canada had constructed" that resulted in the 1914 Komagata Maru incident. (International Film Festival of South Asia)

"I was quite moved, surprisingly," said Ali Kazimi, filmmaker and chair of York University's Department of Cinema and Media Arts, said in an interview with CBC Toronto's Here and Now. "I expected not to be and I'm still processing it."

Kazimi directed the film, Continuous Journey - The Story of Komagata Maru, which is set to be screened just a day after the formal apology on Thursday at the International Film Festival of South Asia in Toronto. 

The film is "an inquiry into the largely ignored history of Canada's exclusion of the South Asians by a little known immigration policy called the Continuous Journey Regulation of 1908," according to its description on the festival's website.

Kazimi said Trudeau's apology conveyed an understanding of the full implications of how Canadian law effectively barred those from British India from entering the country. 

"What came as a relief to me is that the prime minister seemed to have understood that this was not just one event, but there were laws that Canada had constructed that resulted in this," Kazimi said.

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)

In the House of Commons, Trudeau said, "regrettably the passage of time means that none are alive to hear our apology today. Still, we offer it, fully and sincerely, for our indifference to your plight, for our failure to recognize all that you had to offer.

For the laws that discriminated against you so senselessly, and for not apologizing sooner. For all these things, we are truly sorry."

Opening up the conversation

For Kazimi, who was born and raised in India and moved to the GTA for a scholarship studying film production at York University, "what was even more surprising, actually, was the way his words opened up the conversation." 

Opposition Leader Rona Ambrose, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, BQ Leader Rheal Fortin and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May also rose to add their voices to the apology and to offer their own remarks.

Interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose (centre) and Conservative MPs applaud Prime Minister Justin Trudeau 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)

Trudeau ended his his own statement with a tribute to his Sikh Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, who the prime minister said worked hard to bring the Komagata Maru incident to national attention. 

As the prime minister finished his remarks, several members of the visitors' gallery overlooking the House of Commons rose and called out a traditional Sikh chant and response.

Turned away from Canadian harbour 

Kazimi's film tells the story of how 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 filmmaker asserts that what the rules really "sought to do was block immigration from British India at the time, without mentioning race."

The Komagata Maru was stopped by immigration officials, who refused to let any of its 376 passengers disembark. 

Twenty passengers determined to be returning residents were eventually permitted entry, but no one else was allowed off the boat.

The Komagata Maru was formally ordered out on July 19. Four days later under the guns of the naval cruiser HMCS Rainbow, the ship was escorted out to sea and began the journey to back to India.
The Komagata Maru was forced to return to India where some of the passengers were killed in a clash with police.

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

"It's not one dark chapter," Kazimi said. "For 100 years ... Canada effectively sought to create a white settler country based on immigration policies that were effectively whites only." 

Kazimi said it's a part of the country's history that he never wants to see forgotten. 

"I've wanted ... their stories to be remembered," Kazimi said. 

"My work has been a tribute to those early battles that have made it possible for people like me to be here today and for Canada to be a better place." 

Continuous Journey - The Story of Komagata Maru is one of many films being featured as part of the International Film Festival of South Asia running in Toronto from May 19 to May 23. 

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