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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.

The Komagata Maru and HMCS Rainbow

The Komagata Maru and HMCS Rainbow
© Vancouver Public Library / VPL 6229

Until 1967, immigration laws restricted and sometimes banned immigrants from certain ethnic groups and places of origin. These laws were a reflection of accepted sentiments in Canada, North America, and parts of the British Empire. In 1908, the Canadian government issued Orders-in-Council that virtually halted Indian immigration. The first demanded that all Asians possess at least $200 in order to enter Canada. This was almost impossible, since most Indians earned meagre wages. The second demanded that all immigrants come via "continuous passage" from their place of origin. There was no direct steamship service between the two countries and the Canadian government pressured steamship companies not to offer this service.

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.

Sikh group on the Komagata Maru - Vancouver, 1914

Sikh group on the Komagata Maru - Vancouver, 1914
© Library and Archives Canada

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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