The 100th anniversary of the Komagata Maru incident has brought into focus the history of Canada’s immigration policy. The anniversary of this mass deportation has been marked by coverage and specials in the mainstream press, by statements from politicians, as well as remembrance ceremonies, particularly in the Sikh-Canadian community.
The Komagata Maru arrived at Vancouver Harbour on 23 May 1914 from Hong Kong. The ship was prevented from coming to shore; only 24 were allowed to disembark out of the total of 376 passengers on the ship. Many of them had been Sikh veterans in the British Army who demanded that, as British citizens, they be able to travel anywhere in the British Empire.
The boat was kept in the harbour for two months, effectively becoming a floating prison. Early police attempts to take over the ship and force a departure were repelled by the passengers. In the end, the Canadian government had to mobilize their only West Coast warship, the HMSC Rainbow, to force the Komagata Maru to depart to India.
Once the Komagata Maru returned to India, British troops moved to arrest those on board. A riot ensued where the British troops killed 20 passengers and injured others. The entire incident is remembered as a dark chapter in the history of Canadian immigration policy.
Racism and anti-immigrant policies
The legal basis for deporting these migrants was on the basis of the Immigration Act, which had been changed in 1908 to require “continuous journey” from country of origin (which was effectively impossible from India), and had also created an expectation that immigrants from Asia have $200 in their possession. These laws had been passed specifically to prevent migration from India.
This also occurred in the context of the whipping up of strong racist and anti-immigrant hysteria, which was done with the active support of provincial and federal politicians. In fact, one year prior to the passing of those anti-immigration laws, Indians had been barred from voting in British Columbia.
The media headlines, such as “Hindu Invaders Now in the City Harbor on Komagata Maru” in the Vancouver Sun were quite typical during the controversy. Conservative MPs such as H.H. Stevens spoke about the passengers representing an “unproductive civilization”. The BC Court of Appeal ruling in 1914 that justified the deportation explained the customs of these migrants as being “not in vogue” and “destructive to the well-being of society”. Town halls were organized to promote a “White Canada” immigration policy.
This racist rhetoric was used as a useful tool for dividing the working class, which was beginning to rise and organize itself in the province. This radicalization was also a reflection of the regional economic depression that occurred prior to the First World War. To distract and diffuse working-class anger towards the ruling elite, there was a utility to scapegoat Chinese and Indian immigrants as a cultural and economic threat.
These attempts to divide working people were, however, actively resisted through mass meetings and demonstrations including both the Indian diaspora and other Canadian supporters of the Indian migrants. Such meetings were organized with significant involvement of socialists in Canada.
The fears of the ruling class were confirmed just a few years later, when the working class displayed its enormous power during two general strikes that shook Vancouver in 1918 and 1919.
A political threat to the British Empire
It is important to remember that settling in Canada was not the only intention of these migrants from India. They were explicitly challenging their second-class status as Indians under the British Empire by asserting their equal right to migrate throughout the empire. This was a political threat to the authorities.
Many of those aboard the Komagata Maru were activists and sympathizers of the revolutionary and anti-colonial Ghadar Party. This was a party organized to wage a national liberation struggle against British domination. It was heavily influenced by socialist ideas, and rejected attempts to divide India along religious/ethnic lines.
It had significant bases of support in diasporic communities along the Canadian and American West Coast. The goal of this party was to incite mutiny in the Indian ranks of the British army, for the purpose of winning independence for India from the British.
The popularity of the party partially originated from the Indians who had served loyally in the British Army, particularly from the Punjab region. They had an expectation of the right to equality under the law, yet were hypocritically treated as inferiors by the empire they had once served. Many burned their British army uniforms in anger and indignity. The journey to Vancouver was explicitly organized to assert equal rights and to challenge racist anti-immigrant laws and, more broadly, British imperial power.
The revolutionaries of the Ghadar Party were correctly seen as a threat to the British Empire. Political repression was therefore a significant motivation for deporting them. This was displayed when British troops in India carried out a brutal massacre and mass arrests upon the return of the ship.
Stephen Harper’s “apology”
There has been significant pressure on Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper to make an apology during Parliament in the context of the 100th anniversary of the Komagata Maru. This included an op-ed piece in the Toronto Star from the leader of the federal New Democratic Party (NDP), Thomas Mulcair.
Harper had made an apology in Surrey, BC at a large gathering which included many from the Indian diaspora. This apology was openly rejected by those in attendance, including Sikh community leaders, who demanded that the apology be made in Parliament. Jason Kenney, who became the federal Minister of Immigration shortly after, publicly rejected that demand on behalf of the federal Conservative government.
This is reflective of the outlook of the Conservative Party. However, it should be said bluntly that words mean very little if they are not reflected in action. This point applies equally to Thomas Mulcair and the federal NDP. What is the meaning of an apology if the same kinds of policies that led to the suffering and violence against those on board the Komagata Maru are in existence today?
What has been “learned” since the Komagata Maru?
The same policies that caused the tragic events of 100 years ago are largely present today. In fact, the last twenty years have seen the passing of restrictive immigration laws that have, in particular, targeted refugees. They have always been coupled with the intensifying of anti-immigrant hysteria and demonization. This is not a solely Canadian phenomenon, but can be seen across the advanced capitalist countries. Parallel policies can be seen from the United States, to Australia, to Italy, and to Spain.
In 2002, the federal Liberals passed the Safe Third Country agreement with the US, which outlined that all refugees must make a claim in the first country they arrive in. If they come through the USA, and not directly to Canada, they will be deported back. This has a parallel to the “continuous journey” regulations that were used against the passengers of the Komagata Maru a century ago.
Federal Conservatives declare war on refugees
Jason Kenney, serving as Minister of Citizenship and Immigration from 2008-2013, sponsored the Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act (Bill C-31) which was passed in 2012. The purpose of the bill was to crack down on “bogus refugees” and “human smugglers”. It gave enormous powers to the Minister of Immigration.
The Minister of Immigration would have the power to unilaterally designate groups of refugees as “irregular arrivals” (such as those arriving on boat or other smuggling routes). This would mean mandatory detention for two weeks and potential detention for an entire year. Detentions would be subject to court review every six months, instead of every month as under the previous legislation. These refugees could be held in provincial prisons and would have to prepare their claim from prison (and with very little time).
Furthermore, these refugees would have no right to appeal and would face immediate removal upon rejection. In the event of a successful claim, they would be unable to apply for permanent residency for five years. The purpose of this “irregular arrival” categorization is supposedly to deal with human smugglers, yet clearly has severe punitive and coercive measures against refugees themselves.
Bill C-31 also gave the Ministry of Immigration the power to designate a “safe country list”, with refugees from that country having extremely limited rights of appeal, and who could be deported while those appeals were pending. Countries included on this list have seen an 87% drop in refugee claims. This has included countries such as Mexico and Hungary. The latter has seen significant refugee claims from the highly oppressed Roma population, yet almost all (97%) have been rejected during the last year.
There are discussions to include Colombia in this safe list as part of the free trade agreement between Colombia and Canada. This is a country that is widely known to be the most dangerous for trade unionists, with 2,800 murdered in the last two decades. Since the signing of the deal, the rate of acceptance of refugee claimants from Colombia has rapidly dropped from approximately 80% to 50%.
In addition to legal restrictions, the federal Conservatives has stooped as low as gutting the Interim Federal Health Program (IFHP).The IFHP cuts mean that all asylum seekers will be denied life-sustaining drugs or preventative medical care. Those from the safe country list will be denied all federally-funded care. This policy has created a strong backlash from doctors and refugee lawyers. Furthermore, there have been cuts in Legal Aid services. In Ontario, refugees from the safe country list will be denied legal aid and there is a plan to cut the number of legal aid certificates for refugees by 40% according to Legal Aid Ontario (LAO).
It is not an understatement to call these policies a veritable war against refugees. Acceptance rates for refugees have therefore dropped substantially during the Harper’s reign, from 47% in 2006 to 28% in 2012. Most drastic, however, has been the drop in the number of refugee claimants, which has hit the lowest point in many decades. In 2013, only 10,000 refugees made claims in Canada. This is compared to nearly 35,000 refugee claims in 2009!
The Ocean Lady & MV Sun Sea
Memories of the Komagata Maru were brought back several years ago with the docking of two ships in British Columbia. The Ocean Lady and the MV Sun Sea reached the shores of BC in 2009 and 2010, respectively. They carried Tamil refugee claimants fleeing the bloody civil war in Sri Lanka and state repression which targeted the Tamil population as a whole.
The 492 passengers aboard the MV Sun Sea were imprisoned “to ensure our refugee system is not hijacked by criminals or terrorists” according to Public Safety Minister Vic Toews. This also occurred to the 76 passengers aboard the Ocean Lady. The detainment of these refugee claimants was accompanied with vicious attacks in the press and by politicians. Many of them have had their refugee claims rejected and deportation orders have been made against a number of the passengers.
The imprisonment and deportation of those on board has been on the basis of stopping “human smuggling”, “bogus refugees”, and “illegal entry”. These refugees have been labeled as examples of “terrorist travel” and as a threat to “national security”. The supposed association of those on the ship with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has been the basis for this demonization.
“Terrorism” and arbitrariness of refugee boards
Groups of refugees can be denied access to protections, based on supposed associations to organizations defined as terrorist. This includes organizations such as the LTTE and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).
Furthermore, refugee boards and the Canadian government have been using the affiliation of refugees with various organizations as a basis to deny refugee status and to order deportations. This gives room for deportation to be given based on political stances and views seen at odds with the interests of the Canadian government.
This was reflected in the arrest warrant issued to Jose Figueroa, a refugee claimant from El Salvador. He received a deportation order for his involvement in the Farabundo Marti Liberation Front (FMLN), which is a socialist organization that fought against the US-backed military dictatorship. He lived in Canada for 16 years and was forced to seek refuge in a British Columbia church in response to the deportation order and arrest warrant.
This has parallels with the reasoning of the Canadian government to turn away with Komagata Maru. One significant factor was the association of its passengers with the anti-colonial and revolutionary Ghadar Party. The Ghadar Party was demonized as a threat to national security and as terrorists by the British Imperial authorities. The real reason for repressing them was because they posed a political threat to the privileges of the ruling class — of the British capitalists and the allied Indian elite.
Governments and refugee boards can use the political involvement of refugees, either on a case-by-case basis or through the terrorist classifications, as a means to deny protections to refugees and to carry out deportations. This give enormous powers which can be used arbitrarily, based upon the political agenda of the governments and legal authorities, against migrants.
J. Edward Bird, the lawyer representing those on the Komagata Maru and who himself was an activist of the Socialist Party of Canada (SPC), exposed the arbitrary basis by which immigration officials carried out their political agenda. He exclaimed that “they talk about socialists and anarchists. There are no set of anarchists in Canada like the immigration officials who defy all law and order.”
Remembering the Komagata Maru
Despite all the kind and gentle words of the pro-business politicians, the policies and interests that created the tragedy which befell the migrants on the Komagata Maru continue to exist today. While Canada has signed various United Nations declarations, such as the Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, the commitment to human and refugee rights continues to largely be a commitment on paper, not in practice.
The advanced capitalist countries, while being signatories to these conventions, pursue an increasingly brutal and coercive refugee policy. While capital and its owners are freely crossing national borders, the migration of working-class people and refugees is heavily restricted and subject to police/military control (particularly those coming from the ex-colonial world).
The refugee definition gives emphasis to providing protection for those seeking refuge from violence and discrimination based on political opinion. In practice, governments discriminate against migrants whose political views and affiliations are deemed a threat to capitalism and the status quo.
This is the hypocrisy of capitalist law, and particularly international and human rights law. These international declarations pay lip-service to human rights as to create a rosy image for capitalism. In reality the system pursues the narrow economic and political interests of the ruling class.
Learning from the past means fighting to end all restrictive and racist migration and asylum controls. The unelected state bureaucrats, immigration officials, and capitalist class have never had an honest commitment to the human rights of immigrants and refugees. This was something that the socialist movement in Canada and the Indian revolutionary movement understood a century ago.
In remembering the Komagata Maru, let us take a lesson from the actions of its passengers and their supporters in Canada. After their deportation from Canada and the massacre they faced in India, they continued the struggle for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and imperialism. Only in a socialist society run directly by working people can our interests and rights, particularly those of migrants, be protected.
- End all deportations!
- Smash all anti-immigrant and anti-asylum laws!
- The fight for migrant justice is a fight against capitalism!