As hundreds of people aboard the Komagata Maru were starving, thirsty and becoming ill while the ship was anchored in the Vancouver harbour in the spring and summer of 1914, New Westminster city council was actively urging senior governments not to allow those onboard to leave the ship.
On May 23, 1914, 376 British subjects from India arrived in the Vancouver harbour, hoping to enter Canada. Instead, they were prohibited from leaving the ship and were forced to leave Canada on July 23.
On Monday, the City of New Westminster formally apologized to the South Asian community and to the descendants of the Komagata Maru for the actions and words of city council at the time of the incident.
“No doubt the actions from New Westminster city council at the time do not reflect the values of our current council and do not reflect the values of our community,” said Mayor Jonathan Cote. “We have, over generations, seen the tremendous benefit the South Asian community has brought to our community. We feel this is an important action that we need to take at New Westminster city council.”
Raj Singh Toor, spokesperson for the Descendants of the Komagata Maru Society, is the grandson of a passenger on the Komagata Maru. He outlined some of the city’s efforts to prevent passengers from being admitted to Canada.
“New Westminster city council passed a motion on June 22, 1914 stating ‘that this council go on record as being opposed to this immigration, and that the clerk be instructed to urge upon the premier and the Minister of the Interior at Ottawa to use every effort to prevent admission of these people into the country,” he told council Monday night. “One week later, on June 29, 1914, New Westminster Mayor A. W. Gray and a majority of city council attended a community meeting asking ‘the federal authorities at Ottawa to invoke the full power of the present statues and if necessary, enact new laws, to effectively deal with the total exclusion of Asiatics from this country.’”
Toor said the federal government didn’t allow the ship to dock, nor did it provide any food, water or medication for those onboard. He said the local South Asian and First Nations communities provided the passengers with food, water and medication, but that was limited because the government had restricted the Canadian South Asian community from accessing the ship.
“The Komagata Maru passengers were starving, they were thirsty, and they were getting sick. They had a very painful, hard time,” he said. “On July 23, 1914, the ship was sent back to India, forcefully, under the shadow of a military ship. The British were ruling India at that time, and when the Komagata Maru arrived in India British troops shoot the passengers – 20 were killed on the spot; many were injured. Most of the passengers were put in jail for a long period of time.”
Healing the scars of racism
Toor approached city council in October 2019 about the possibility of naming a street, park or city asset after the Komagata Maru. Council directed staff to report back on the city’s connection to the Komagata Maru incident, such as any assistance the local South Asian community provided to the passengers of the Komagata Maru.
While it was believed New Westminster families may have been among those who provided passengers with supplies during the two months the ship remained in Vancouver’s harbour, a staff review of council minutes, newspapers, municipal property assessment rolls and archival documents from 1914 told a different story. The research showed the 1914 city council was vehemently opposed to immigration and urged provincial and federal officials to “use every effort to prevent admission of these people” into Canada.
In response to those findings, city council directed staff to start the process of naming the Q to Q ferry docks in Queensborough and downtown New Westminster, as well as the riverfront walkway in Queensborough, in commemoration of the Komagata Maru. Council also supported making a formal apology for the city’s actions.
The City of New Westminster’s apology, which was offered in English, Hindi and Punjabi, stated that a review of city records from 1912 to 1916 showed the city had acted in a discriminatory manner toward people of South Asian descent. It stated past actions of council aren’t consistent with current council values and strategies priorities around reconciliation, inclusion and engagement.
“The City of New Westminster formally apologizes to the South Asian community and the descendants of the survivors of the Komagata Maru, for its past actions, which resulted in discrimination and exclusion,” said the apology. “The city looks forward to working together inclusively; in the spirit of friendship, community and co-operation to build strong bonds and lasting relations.”
The apology stated the city acknowledges that the South Asian community has been as socially supportive and active part of New Westminster’s community for more than 100 years.
“City actions of the day would have made its South Asian residents feel unwelcome and unsafe in their community,” said the statement. “Currently, about 5,790 people of South Asian ancestry continue to call New Westminster their home.”
Cote said the city’s investigation revealed a city council that very openly and actively was supporting and promoting the exclusionary policies being put forward by the federal government, which was denying access to the Komagata Maru and its inhabitants.
“This has no doubt been a difficult chapter in our country’s history but it is also a difficult chapter in our community,” he said. “When, earlier this year, the information was presented it was decided at that point that not only do we want to take an opportunity to be able to recognize the Komagata Maru , the South Asian connection in the community that has been so strong in our community, and tell that history in our community, but we also recognized that we had an important role to play here at council to make an apology for the actions of mayor and council at the time.”
Cote said the renaming of the docks and walkway will continue to tell the important store of this negative incident in Canadian history and to help the community learn and grow.
“There is nothing we can do to change our history, but no doubt it is important that we learn from our history,” he said. “That is the importance of being able to continue to tell the story, recognize and take accountability for past actions in our community. I think that is really what tonight is about.”
Coun. Chinu Das thinks the apology is taking place at the appropriate time in the city’s history, given the city’s commitment to social inclusion, diversity and reconciliation.
“As a South Asian, when that report came to me about the role that New Westminster council had at that time, I could hardly speak. I was so emotionally upset that anybody would treat any other human being or even view any other human being that way,” she said. “I am so glad we are at a place today where we can apologize.”
Toor thanked the city for taking “meaningful action” to apologize for actions that contributed to the suffering of so many people. He said actions such as these go a long ways in helping to heal the scars of racism that are felt through the generations.
“The Komagata Maru apology will help educate the community and remind us of how unique Canada’s and New Westminster a diverse makeup is. We are all richer when we remember how special it is to have so many different ethnic communities living together,” he said. “I hope that it will help to connect Canadians, British Columbians and New Westminster residents with their past to build a more peaceful and tolerant tomorrow. I am glad to be a part of making this happen.”