Credit for Justin Trudeau's Komagata Maru apology should go to writers who brought forth story

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      An apology by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the House of Commons might never have occurred had it not been for the work of a Simon Fraser University historian and other writers.

      In 1979, Hugh Johnston wrote his first edition of The Voyage of the Komagata Maru: The Sikh Challenge to Canada's Colour Bar. It was an astonishing and detailed exploration of events leading up to and following the expulsion of a vessel from Vancouver's harbour on July 23, 1914.

      The ship was chartered by a Sikh businessman, Gurdit Singh, who challenged racist immigration legislation. Under the rules of that era, Canada barred entry to people who didn't make a continuous journey—discriminating against those who came from longer distances.

      The boat carried 376 migrants from South Asia. More than 350 were forced to return to India, which is what prompted Trudeau's apology today.

      The Straight interviewed Johnston upon the release of the second edition of his landmark book on the 100th anniversary of the Komagata Maru's expulsion.

      At the time, Johnston said that he spent a year and a half in India researching this story. He also made many trips to the National Archives in Ottawa and spent years looking into the story in Vancouver with the help of Canadians of Indian descent.

      In the 1970s, no other historians were looking seriously at the history of the South Asian community in Canada.

      "The story had many dimensions, actually," Johnston said. "It was drawing me to India and Indian culture, as well as the political history of the period. It is something more than some people throwing coal off the side of a ship at a tugboat. There is a lot more there."

      Early Indian community was political

      The book revealed how Indian immigrants to Canada's west coast in the early 20th century were actively engaged in the struggle to free India from British rule. They formed the Ghadar party and operated newspapers.

      This attracted the interest of British authorities and an immigration inspector, in particular, by the name of William Hopkinson. He was an Anglo-Indian who spoke Hindi and had a network of spies keeping an eye on the South Asian community in Vancouver.

      Johnston's book revealed that Hopkinson even travelled to San Francisco to investigate Ghadar party activists there.

      The Voyage of the Komagata Maru also exposed efforts to persuade South Asians to move to British Honduras in 1908. It also went into considerable detail about a vessel called the Panama Maru carrying 56 South Asians that landed in Victoria in 1913.

      They were allowed to disembark because their lawyer, Edward Bird, won a court victory with a technical argument concerning the wording of the continuous-journey regulation. 

      This was the backdrop to the arrival of the Komagata Maru on May 23, 1914. The Panama Maru episode emboldened Sikh businessman Gurdit Singh to charter the vessel. When immigration officials refused to allow passengers to leave the ship, Hopkinson became even more loathed by Indian nationalists in Canada.

      The immigration inspector met his demise when he was murdered by Mewa Singh on October 21, 1914. This was in response to one of Hopkinson's informants gunning down Indian community leader Bhag Singh Bhikiwind and one of his associates a month earlier.

      "I accept the notion that history is like memory," Johnston said in 2014. "Memory can be injurious, actually, but without memory, you're lost."

      Writers told different aspects of story

      The Komagata Maru is memorialized at Vancouver's Harbour Green Park with iron panels simulating the hull of the ship. There's also a plaque and a photograph, which were created largely due to the efforts of the Khalsa Diwan Society.

      One of Johnston's former students was Naveen Girn, who spearheaded a Komagata Maru exhibition at eight Vancouver cultural institutions in 2014. This also helped boost the profile of this story in the eyes of local residents.

      Meanwhile, Surrey writer Phinder Dulai's 2014 dream/arteries (Talonbooks) was an evocative collection of poems that tell the story of the Komagata Maru on its various ports of call, including that fateful journey to Vancouver in 2014. Dulai did a marvellous job conveying what life was like aboard the ship—as well as the magnitude of Britain's looting of the Indian subcontinent through the colonial era.

      Another writer who has told the story is Toronto-based filmmaker Ali Kazimi, whose award-winning 2004 documentary Continuous Journey elevated Canadians' understanding. His subsequent book, Undesirables: White Canada and the Komagata Maru, was a finalist for the 2012 City of Vancouver Book Award and a 2013 B.C. Book Prize. No one can read this and not conclude that Canada was ruled by white supremacists in the early 20th century.

      Finally, Spice Radio broadcaster, author, and Georgia Straight contributor Gurpreet Singh deserves credit for his efforts to educate Canadians about this sorry historical episode. His 2013 book, Why Mewa Singh Killed William Hopkinson: Revisiting the Murder of a Canadian Immigration Inspector (Chatna Parkashan), helped show why some in the South Asian community see Mewa Singh as a hero. In fact, Mewa Singh's name graces the downstairs hall in Vancouver's Ross Street gurdwara.

      Had it not been for the work of Johnston, Dulai, Kazimi, and Gurpreet Singh, it's hard to imagine that there would have been sufficient public pressure to bring about today's apology.

      Many writers toil in obscurity and for very little pay. But every once in while, they can actually move prime ministers to take action. This was one of those days.