During Asian Heritage Month, the City of Vancouver has officially apologized for a historic act of racism against South Asian people that happened over a century ago.
At today’s city council meeting, Mayor Kennedy Stewart read out a formal apology from the city for the discrimination against 376 passengers who were prevented from entering Canada after arriving in Vancouver on the Komagata Maru ship from India, then under British rule, in April 1914.
“As we mark the 107th anniversary of the arrival of the Komagata Maru, Vancouver City Council and I, on behalf of the City of Vancouver, sincerely apologize for the role the City played in the incident, especially supporting laws that prevented passengers from disembarking,” Stewart said in a statement. “For this, and all the repercussions that followed, we are truly sorry.”
The incident exposed how South Asian people, despite being British subjects, were unwelcome in Canada. Canada had blocked immigration from India in 1908 by requiring any immigrants to arrive by ship directly from their country of origin, which was an impossibility from India.
As the passengers were prohibited from entering Canada, they were consequently forced to remain on the ship for two months without access to food, water, and medical aid. Furthermore, when the ship returned to India, 19 passengers were fatally shot during a riot and others were injured or imprisoned.
Vancouver city council unanimously passed a motion in June 2020 to recognize the injustice of the incident.
“The apology recognized Vancouver City Council’s racism when they supported through resolution rather than denounced the federal government’s racist immigration laws in June 1914, opposing people from India and other Asian countries to enter and live in Canada,” the city stated in a news release.
This Sunday (May 23) will be the first Komagata Maru Remembrance Day to be observed in Vancouver, and city hall will be lit up with orange lights to mark the occasion.
On that day, the city will release a video on the city’s website and social media that features the passengers’ descendants telling the story of the Komagata Maru incident. The video will also be screened on the third floor foyer of City Hall every year between May and July to help educate the public.
Since the autumn of 2020, city staff have worked with a volunteer committee, including historians and Descendants of the Komagata Maru Society members, on preparations for this occasion.
“We are all richer when we remember how unique it is to have so many different ethnic communities living together,” Raj Singh Toor, vice-president of the Descendants of the Komagata Maru Society, stated in a news release. “I hope the apology and video will help to connect Vancouverites, British Columbians, and Canadians with their past, and to build a more peaceful, equitable tomorrow.”
This apology is part of the city’s broader effort to address historic discrimination against South Asian people in Vancouver. The city will hire a South Asian redress planner to advance redress work with South Asian communities.
In May 2008, the B.C. government made a formal apology for the Komagata Maru incident, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau formally apologized on behalf of the federal government in May 2016 for the incident.
Today’s apology from the City of Vancouver also follows previous official apologies made by the city for discrimination against other Asian communities that also were targeted with racist legislation designed to restrict immigration or community growth.
In September 2013, the city made a formal apology for its role in the 1942 internment of Japanese Canadians and the city formally apologized in April 2018 for historic discrimination against people of Chinese descent.