This Week in History
The Komagata Maru Incident
This story was initially published in 2001
On May 23, 1914, the Komagata Maru sailed into Vancouver's harbour transporting Indians destined for Canada. Their attempt to land in British Columbia remains a controversial episode in Canadian immigration history.
Gurdit Singh, a Sikh leader and businessman, chartered the Komagata Maru to challenge Canadian immigration laws. Singh left Hong Kong rather than India with full knowledge that this was not a "continuous passage." He assembled 376 passengers – 24 Muslims, 12 Hindus and 340 Sikhs – mostly men from the Punjab in India. As residents of the British Empire, Singh felt he and his passengers should be welcomed in Canada. He was wrong.
When they anchored in Burrard Inlet near Vancouver, immigration authorities immediately took over and did not let passengers disembark. Nor did they let members of Vancouver's Sikh community board the ship. Immigration agents claimed that the passengers violated Canadian immigration law. Authorities, with full support from federal and British Columbia governments, took extreme measures to ensure that the Indians would not land.
For two months the Komagata Maru remained offshore in Burrard Inlet. The passengers were virtual prisoners, near starvation, and living in unhealthy conditions. All avenues were eventually exhausted and the courts upheld the deportation decree, so the passengers agreed to leave. On July 23, the unarmed Komagata Maru pulled out of Burrard Inlet on its way back to Hong Kong, escorted out to sea by the Royal Canadian Navy's heavily armed HMCS Rainbow. The immigrants were forced to return to Calcutta, India, where they encountered further adversity.
Indian immigration was non-existent until restrictions against them were lifted in 1947. Perceptions have since changed and Indians comprise an integral part of Canadian society. Immigration to Canada is an event of national historic significance commemorating the multicultural origins of Canadians.
For more information, visit Passage from India: The Komagata Maru.
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