New Westminster is embarking on efforts to reconcile “a dark chapter” in its history.
In May 1914, 376 passengers from Punjab, British India arrived in Vancouver on the Komagata Maru. They were denied permission to dock, and only 20 returning residents and the ship’s doctor and his family were allowed entry into Canada.
Two months later, the Komagata Maru was forced to return to India, where, upon their return, 19 passengers were shot and others were imprisoned.
Raj Singh Toor approached city council in 2019 on behalf of the Komagata Maru Society, an organization that has lobbied Canadian cities to find ways to memorialize the incident, with a request to name a street, park or city asset after the Komagata Maru. Keen to explore the connection between New Westminster and the Komagata Maru, council passed a motion by Coun. Chinu Das.
It’s believed New Westminster families may have been among those who provided passengers with food, water and medication during the two months the ship remained in Vancouver’s harbour. They may also have been among the citizens who tried to lease the ship in an attempt to keep it from being sent back to India.
Instead of a feel-good story about the community’s response to the Komagata Maru, council members were “appalled” to learn the role their predecessors played in the incident.
While researching council minutes, newspapers, municipal property assessment rolls and archival documents, the city’s museum and heritage services staff uncovered records showing 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. New Westminster’s mayor presided over a community meeting that had been called to organize against South Asian and Asian immigration, and a resolution was passed by the gathering:
“That this mass meeting here assembled do most heartily endorse the action of the immigration officials in preventing the landing of the Hindus from the Komagata Maru, and call on the federal authorities in Ottawa to invoke the full power of the present statutes, and if necessary, enact new laws, to effectively deal with the total exclusion of Asiatics from this country.”
“It is a dark chapter in our history,” Das said Monday. “The federal government, the provincial government and several municipal governments have spoken to it and apologized for it. When I made that motion, I was looking for a community connection and hoping to feel good about how our community had responded.”
Das admitted she found it difficult to read the staff report and hear the racist language used “over and over again” by elected officials from that time. She referred to one article, which stated council would discuss the “Hindu problem” at an upcoming meeting.
“I just cringe at what I am reading,” she said. “And this was the council of its day.”
Commemorating Komagata Maru
Upon receiving staff’s report on the city’s role in the Komagata Maru incident, council directed staff to start the process of naming the Q to Q ferry docks in Queensborough and downtown New Westminster in commemoration of the Komagata Maru. Interpretative signage telling the story of the Komagata Maru will be developed and will recognize community members who participated in supporting passengers of the ship.
Das suggested the riverfront walkway in Queensborough should also be named in commemoration of the Komagata Maru.
“It is an extremely symbolic gesture for us to recognize the dock and the trail; the one thing that was denied to them because they were considered such undesirable folks was that they were not allowed to dock on our lands or walk on our lands,” she said.
Council members wholeheartedly supported including the Queensborough walkway as part of the city’s efforts to commemorate the Komagata Maru.
“Recognizing it in that manner, I think there is something that is really beautiful in that connection,” said Mayor Jonathan Cote. “I think we have found a good way to honour, recognize and to tell the story of this painful, dark part of our province’s history.”
Cote said the city has a real opportunity to share the important story of the Komagata Maru with the community, as the Q to Q docks and the Queensborough walkway are very active sites in the city.
Toor, whose grandfather was among those onboard the vessel, believes actions like this go a long way in helping to heal scars of racism that are felt through the generations and through the centuries. He said the naming process is also a great reminder to New Westminster residents about B.C.’s rich ethnic heritage.
“It’s a great tribute to those passengers who experienced extreme hardship and suffering throughout the entire ordeal. With this motion, we can see a new and much brighter chapter of the Komagata Maru story being written, and it is showing B.C. to be a much more tolerant and inclusive community,” he said in a news release.
Toor also supports the city’s plan to draft a formal apology for actions taken by New Westminster city council in June 1914 to block the entry of the ship’s passengers into Canada.
Coun. Patrick Johnstone said the facts uncovered by staff warrant further action by city council.
“I don’t think we expected that this was going to bring up the active role the previous city council at the time played in stoking fears about this situation, advocating that the people on the Komagata Maru not be allowed to land in Canada. They weren’t allowed to come into Canada,” he said. “The fact that our council took an active role in that, I think calls on some action from us to follow up.”
Council approved Johnstone’s motion to have the city draft a formal apology to the community, families and descendents of those who were impacted negatively by actions and words of the council of New Westminster during the Komagata Maru incident.
Johnstone said actions undertaken by city representatives had impacts on the families and descendents of the Komagata Maru. He said it also affected residents who were made to feel less welcome in the community they lived in because of the actions and the words of council.
Based on actions taken at that time, Das said there had clearly been no political will, no public will and no public consultation to support the people on board the Komagata Maru. She said she’s grateful ideologies and values have changed over time and New Westminster is a far more inclusive and welcoming community today.
“I think the final change of the ideology is me – I am here, a South Asian immigrant woman sitting on council,” she said. “The same council that 100 years ago didn’t want the Hindus – well, I am a Hindu. I am here, and I was elected by the people of New Westminster, which means there was public will. So there is political will and there is public will. I am glad of the changes that we have achieved.”