For retired SFU professor Hari Sharma, the current economic troubles provide a relevant backdrop to this year’s centennial commemoration of a regulation that limited migration to Canada.
Just as it is today, according to Sharma, the economy was going through rough times when the federal government amended the immigration law in 1908 to require immigrants coming to Canada to arrive through an uninterrupted voyage.
According to an official account by Citizenship and Immigration Canada, “this ingenious device served to ban all Indian immigration,” since no shipping company provided direct service from India to Canada at that time. It also closed the Hawaiian route for Japanese immigrants. The continuous-journey regulation, now regarded as one of the racist stains on the country’s history, remained in effect until 1947.
“Every time the economy goes through a depressive phase, there is the desire to look for scapegoats, the desire to hate other people,” Sharma told the Georgia Straight. “Racism has always found and arrives in its manifestation during serious economic situations.”
A year before the regulation was passed, Vancouver was rocked by the anti-Asian riots that capped years of resentment among the white population—especially the ranks of labour unions—against Chinese and Japanese immigrants.
Sharma explained that because India was a British colony and Canada was a British dominion at that time, the Canadian government could not impose a head tax on Indians as was done with Chinese immigrants starting in 1885. He said such a measure would have damaged the Empire’s image before its subjects.
Sharma also noted that economic times were likewise bad in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the U.S.–based Ku Klux Klan white-supremacist group, which had a presence in this country during the 1920s, tried to return to Western Canada.
As part of the commemoration activities, a forum will be held Friday (November 21) at the Vancouver Public Library’s central branch, where Kabir Joshi-Vijayan, a Grade 10 student from Toronto, will talk about the “myth of the model immigrant”. The discussion starts at 7:30 p.m.
On Saturday (November 22), Sharma will be one of the speakers after a screening of Continuous Journey, an award-winning documentary by filmmaker Ali Kazimi. The event will take place from 1:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. at Kwantlen Polytechnic University (12666 72nd Avenue, Surrey).
The Surrey Urban Youth Project, a Pacific Community Resources Society program for immigrant and Native youth, is one of the sponsors of the film screening. Project researcher and community-liaison officer J. R. Guerrero noted that such activities will help the young understand how various ethnic communities had to fight for their rights.
“That’s the continuing work we have to do,” Guerrero told the Straight. “And there is still much work to be done.”
Sharma retired from teaching sociology in 1999, and he recalled that he taught many students who didn’t know about the infamous Komagata Maru incident of 1914.
The Komagata Maru was a Japanese ship chartered by Singapore-based Sikh businessman Gurdit Singh to challenge the continuous-journey regulation. After making stops in Japan and China, the ship arrived in Burrard Inlet in Vancouver on May 23, 1914, with 376 passengers, mostly Sikhs, many of them veterans of the British army. The passengers were not allowed to disembark. After a two-month standoff, the ship was forced out to sea and it eventually sailed to Calcutta. Upon arriving there, some passengers were shot dead by police.
According to Sharma, the Komagata Maru experience served as a powerful symbol in the Indian people’s fight to win independence from British colonial rulers.
The incident remains an unclosed chapter in the history of South Asians in British Columbia.
The flap over Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s botched apology for the Komagata Maru is a vivid indication of its importance to the Indo-Canadian community. Harper expressed regret over the incident in a speech at a Surrey park on August 3 this year. Immediately after he left, community leaders took the stage to denounce the apology and demand that one be made on the floor of the House of Commons, as for the Chinese head tax.
“Our task is to keep the memories of the past alive so the people who never lived through it or have no inkling of what happened become sensitive to what actually happened,” Sharma said.