Acknowledging Wrongs of the Past

Maru

SS Komagata Maru, 1914. City of Vancouver Archives

Yesterday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that in May, he would make an official apology in the House of Commons for what is commonly known as the Komagata Maru Incident. In 1914, a ship (the Komagata Maru) of Indian passengers sailed from Japan to Vancouver, where the Canadian government refused to let almost all the passengers enter Canada. Most of the passengers were Sikhs, though there were a handful of Muslims and Hindus aboard, and Trudeau intends to address his apology to the Sikh community as a whole.

At first glance, this may seem like a strange transnational incident. 1914 saw the beginning of World War One, which in part contributed to Canada’s restrictions, but most of its limited immigration policies were grounded in xenophobia similar to that in the U.S. at the turn of the century, and Canada passed laws restricting immigration form Asia just as the U.S. did.

The passengers aboard the Komagata Maru argued that they had a right to enter Canada because they were British subjects. India was still a British colony, and both countries would supply troops to Great Britain in the First World War. Nevertheless, national fears of Asian immigrants persisted in 1914. The Komagata Maru sat in port in Vancouver for months before finally leaving.

Over a century later, a different Prime Minister of a different political party hopes to make amends. Formal apologies on behalf of governments to historically persecuted groups are not unheard of. In 2008, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made a similar formal apology to the indigenous population of Australia, but Trudeau’s comments come at a unique political moment.

Trudeau will apology for Canada’s suppression of immigrants, and he intends to do so after his party, the Liberals, ran partly on a platform of allowing Syrian refugees into Canada, while political parties in Europe and the U.S. discuss either similar or opposite measures. Many politicians have advocated restricting and even halting immigration, and have used xenophobic rhetoric almost identical to that used by the Canadian government in 1914.

Trudeau’s apology is, of course, a highly political statement. It is not simply a matter of saying sorry, but of acknowledging what is now considered a broken logic, and with that acknowledgment comes a subtle declaration that such logic no longer has a place in his government. It admits not just past wrongdoing, but decries the possibility of future wrongdoing. The apology is a policy statement, an act of historical legislation that does not wipe away but makes an example of one of Canada’s worst actions, and in doing so, Trudeau invites others to listen, to introspect, and to follow suit.

-jk

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