Gurpreet Singh: Komagata Maru centenary brings indigenous Canadians and South Asians together

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In a historic gesture of goodwill, the indigenous peoples of Canada have celebrated the Komagata Maru episode centenary inside Musqueam Indian Band territory.

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The band members not only accorded warm welcome to the South Asians on the night of May 23, when the Komagata Maru vessel carrying over 300 South Asian passengers aboard arrived in Vancouver in 1914, but also allowed South Asians to hold the unveiling of the Canada Post stamp dedicated to the incident.

The ship was forced to return under the discriminatory immigration laws meant to keep Canada white back then. In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized for the episode.

The event was organized in partnership with the Komagata Maru Heritage Foundation, which was instrumental in Canada Post’s decision to launch a postal stamp to mark the centenary of the Komagata Maru incident. The stamp was unveiled by descendants of the ship passengers at the ceremony and received standing ovation from those in attendance.

straight.com> Musqueam Band play traditional music to welcome South Asians on the night of May 23.
Gurpreeet Singh

Band elder Larry Grant announced that his community welcomes the South Asians, with “open arms” on the occasion of the 100 years of the incident. In his brief speech Grant said, “We as first people of Canada raise our hands to welcome you.”

He noted that they had also welcomed British settlers, but gradually the British Empire occupied their territory and decided to exclude every non-European, including the First Nations and the immigrants from South Asia.

His nephew, Wade Grant, added, “We would have embraced them (the ship passengers) much as we welcomed the Europeans. We are impacted by the same racist policies and we feel the same pain passed to generations.”

Others who spoke on the occasion included Minister of State for Multiculturalism Tim Uppal. He reminded the gathering that Harper is the first Canadian prime minister to acknowledge this historical wrong.

Incidentally, Harper had also apologized for the abuse of the aboriginal children at Indian Residential Schools where these children were forcibly sent to covert them into Christians during colonialism.

Artist Jarnail Singh's paintings tell the story of the Komagata Maru's journey in 1914.
Charlie Smith

Former B.C. attorney general Wally Oppal, who headed an inquiry into the missing and murdered aboriginal women in Vancouver, said that the history taught in Canadian schools has done injustice to the indigenous peoples for the past many years.

He recalled having read how indigenous peoples were referred to as savages by European historians. He warned that racism still continues and need to be challenged, demanding that the Komagata Maru episode be made compulsory history reading as “such incidents could happen again, although maybe not be to same extent.”   

Among other speakers were former federal Liberal minister Herb Dhaliwal and the Komagata Maru Heritage Foundation leader Harbhajan Singh Gill.

Harhajan Gill is president of the Komagata Maru Heritage Foundation.
Charlie Smith

Those present on the occasion included Jaswinder Toor and his family. Toor’s maternal grandfather, Puran Singh Janetpura, was aboard the ship. He's the leader of the group of Komagata Maru descendants.

Likewise, Manjit Dhillon, whose grandfather was a Ghadar Party activist, and his wife Harjit Dhillo, whose father Moola Singh was a leader of the freedom movement in India, were also in attendance.

An exhibition of paintings depicting Komagata Maru story and made by Jarnail Singh was one of the highlights of the event. 

Gurdit Singh chartered the Komagata Maru to challenge racist continuous-journey legislation targeting South Asians.
Charlie Smith

A day earlier, the Komagata Maru Heritage Foundation reenacted the whole episode and took a ferry ride through the Burrad Inlet where the ship was originally stranded for two months in 1914.

A banner reading Komagata Maru was dropped from the top of the ferry carrying more than 300 people.

The whole exercise culminated in the civic reception organized by the Musqueam band where the First Nation played traditional music and served dinner. 

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