Gurpreet Singh: Vancouver police mishandled vandalism of Komagata Maru memorial

The response to the desecration of the Komagata Maru memorial reflects very badly on the Vancouver Police Department.

Last month, an unidentified individual urinated at the memorial in the presence of the South Asian visitors. Not only that, he was very abusive when he was challenged for slamming a ball on the picture at the site in Harbour Green Park.  

The memorial, which is near the Vancouver Convention Centre, has a wall bearing the names of passengers aboard the Komagata Maru vessel. Canadian authorities forced it to return to India in July 1914 under the discriminatory continuous-journey law that prevented the South Asian immigrants from coming indirectly to Vancouver from the country of their birth.

A picture of the South Asian ship passengers also greets visitors at the memorial, which was built by the City of Vancouver. Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized in 2008 for the episode, and this is the centenary year of the incident.   

One of the witnesses of the sacrilegious act, Pargan Mattu, took pictures and reported the matter to the VPD and the media.

Initially, a section of the mainstream media and the VPD ignored the incident only to wake up after the story was picked by Punjabi media outlets. Following angry reaction from the Punjabi community, police finally swung into action.

But to the dismay of the community it declined to recommend charges, saying that the criteria for such action has not been established. The police stated that prior to charges being laid, investigators need to establish that a criminal offence has occurred, that these charges are in the public interest, and that there was a substantial likelihood of a conviction.

Apparently, the VPD has also turned into a moral police, announcing that it has identified the man and has explained to him the cultural significance of the memorial.

Apologists for the establishment in the South Asian community separately claimed that the individual involved has mental-health issues and that the police can’t do anything. But the community was not impressed. Angry calls to Punjabi radio stations forced community leaders, the VPD, and Mayor Gregor Robertson to come out together to make a joint statement saying that the individual has apologized for his behaviour.

Whereas police and community gatekeepers think the controversy has died once and for all, the attitude of the VPD reflects very badly on our law enforcers.

Activists in the South Asian community never showed any hatred or vindictiveness. All they were seeking was an honest apology from the individual involved.

If the police knew that there was a mental-health situation, why weren't they more forthcoming about it? The community is kind-hearted enough and would have forgiven this guy anyway.

Why such flip-flop then? It appears that the VPD has treated South Asians as bunch of foolish people who can be silenced by cooking up stories.

The three grounds initially given by the police were not convincing at all. How could police claim that it could not establish a criminal offence having been committed despite the fact that there was a witness and pictures to corroborate his claim?

On what basis did the VPD decide that it was not in the public interest? Does that mean that the concerns of the South Asian community do not represent the public interest?

And under what authority did the VPD decide that there was no chance of conviction? Is the VPD above the Crown or the court?

Let’s call spade a spade: the police department is indulging in damage control with the connivance of community gatekeepers, but this won’t help to win over public confidence.

Whereas Harper has made an apology for the Komagata Maru episode, the Canadian establishment has done very little to change the attitudes of its police forces toward visible minorities.

Such insensitivity has not been shown for the first time. The mishandling of the Air India investigation, the missing women's inquiry, and other instances of under policing in situations in which oppressed or marginalized groups are on the receiving end show more needs to be done to end systemic racism.

Comments (10) Add New Comment
I agree with the columnist - under the VPD reasoning I take it the citizens of Vancouver should expect no action of any kind on criminal issues should the individual claim they have mental issues?

IMO VPD used this excuse selectively?
Rating: -16
It's interesting community newspapers have been looking into this more than the big media. A South Asian paper published an account by one of the witnesses who said police blamed their inaction on his unwillingness to speak to them. He says in reality he left a number of messages at the police station and only stopped after the receptionist told him officers may not need to speak to him any longer. I read in another community paper that the VPD said it was pointless to charge a mentally ill drug addicted man with bylaw offenses when at almost the same time it was defending handing out tickets to people on the DTES.
Rating: +6
The author needs to give his head a shake.

- No criminal offence was committed. It was a bylaw offence.

- It is not in the "public interest" to aggressively prosecute a person suffering from serious mental illness and addiction. The opposite is true.

- If Gurpreet Singh thinks that police should submit any and all incidents to Crown for consideration of charges, he must live in fantasyland. If police did not make judgement calls - based on experience - our justice system would be completely paralyzed.

Unfortunately, the author's bias is evident in his use of the phrase "sacrilegious act". When did the memorial in question become a tribute to the Sikh faith?
Rating: +13
Alan Layton
This will become the VPD's Benghazi.
Rating: -17
Public Confidance?
How about physical assaults where people are beaten not resulting in charges.

Brothers acquitted in vicious attack on gay couple

Two Richmond, B.C. brothers accused of viciously assaulting a gay couple in downtown Vancouver have been found not guilty.

Neither Parminder Singh Peter Bassi nor his younger brother Ravinder Robbie Bassi could be positively identified as the assailants in the June 12, 2010 attack, a provincial court judge ruled Monday.

Both men were acquitted on charges of assault causing bodily harm.

Read more:
Rating: -3
@ Public Confidance (sic)

Like too many these days, you have seized on an opportunity to slam a system you don't understand - even though your example isn't even remotely connected to the story at hand.

We are talking about a mentally ill person, with addictions, who decided to pee on a memorial. Bad idea. But even if a bylaw infraction carried a possible jail sentence, are you seriously suggesting that we throw this guy in prison? To what end - to restore "public confidance"? How about lopping off the hands of petty thieves? Is that the kind of "justice" you want to see in Harper's Canada?

Stick to the issue.
Rating: +10
@David H
You completely missed the point r.e. public confidence. Its a comparison for considering the level of indignation presented here. It doesn't slam the system it all.

And that is the issue. You just missed it.
Rating: +1
Fair enough. But if that was your point, you should have made it. Instead, you appeared to draw a false comparison and asked an obscure question about public confidence (in the justice system). Few of us are mind readers, so just make your point.
Rating: -1
Barking Mad
When I first read about this incident I was disgusted by it and outraged that nothing was being done by the justice system. The police obviously handled it badly by initially stating that nothing could be done to prosecute the individual for his blatantly disgusting and unlawful actions, making it sound like a coverup at the time. Why the VPD did not simply state that the perpetrator has mental health problems (and that he had apologized) to explain why charges were not being brought against him?

I suspect this critical bit of information was omitted for a simple reason, bureaucratic bungling. Mistakes do happen for a variety of reasons and not everything is a deliberate attempt to deceive or another example of abuse by the system.

However, the writer still goes on to make a rather sweeping, unsubstantiated statement: "It appears that the VPD has treated South Asians as bunch of foolish people who can be silenced by cooking up stories." and further refers to: "...damage control with the connivance of community gatekeepers..." What evidence is there of any of this?

Oddly, the writer also scoffs at the concept of VPD being "the moral police" by defusing a situation and not bringing charges when there was neither malice or a deliberate attempt to break the law. Is this not what we actually want our police to do? Do we really want them to haul away and charge every single person who commits an infraction, especially unwittingly or because of mental health issues or health issues? When the police actually do behave in such a manner there is no end of public outrage and I suspect the writer would be at the forefront.
Rating: +3
Martin Dunphy
Barking Mad:

Two days before the VPD photo op/news conference where it was finally revealed that the perpetrator was "mentally ill", this paragraph appeared in a Straight commentary that was critical of the police response to the incident:

"If there are extenuating circumstances in the Komagata Maru memorial incident—i.e., mental illness or any reason the man was unable to appreciate the seriousness of his actions—they should have been made public in order for justice (or due consideration of same) to be seen to be done.

Not seem to be done."

And although police are to be commended for their concern for the mentally ill in our community, no determination of someone's mental condition seems to be done when handing out jaywalking, illegal vending, and fare-evasion tickets, etc., on the Downtown Eastside.
Rating: -1
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