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Undesirables: White Canada and the Komagata Maru

February 18, 2012 by  


Author: Ali Kazimi
Publisher: Douglas & McIntyre (Vancouver)
Year:  2012
Pp:158
Reviewed by Mohammed Ayub Khan

undesirablesCanada prides itself as a country which values its diversity. Multiculturalism is embedded in its law. It also has a long history of discriminatory attitudes and policies towards non-whites. In Undesirables: White Canada and the Komagata Maru film maker Ali Kazimi documents the tragic saga of expulsion of Indian immigrants who had wanted to make Canada their home in 1914.  It reveals the then deep rooted racist nature of Canadian immigration policies which sought to build a homogenous nation of white immigrants.

During the colonial era the Indians were British subjects and therefore could technically live anywhere in the empire. Seeking greener pastures many entrepreneurial Indians, especially from the Punjab, attempted to try their luck elsewhere.  At the same time, however, racial tension was rising in Canada and there were calls for placing restrictions on non-white immigration. Bowing to the pressure from racist organizations   the Canadian government enacted the a new regulation in 1908 which required that the immigrants coming to the country come  by a continuous journey of which they are natives or citizens and have come on tickets purchased in that country.  This regulation was clearly intended to stop South Asian migrants from coming to Canada even though they were not officially named.  The “continous journey” regulation was challenged in 1913 by a group of 39 Sikhs who were detained by the immigration officials. With the help of the local South Asians they took the matter to the courts and were granted a favourable ruling and allowed to land. This news sent a wave of excitement among the would be Indian immigrants stranded at many shores.

Gurdit Singh, a Singapore based businessman, hired the Japanese ship Komagata Maru and began selling one way tickets to 376 immigrants from British India. They were 340 Sikhs, 24 Muslims and 12 Hindus on board the ship which set sail from Hong Kong.  Many of them were veterans of the British Army and had fought to defend the empire and thought they were entitled to settle in Canada.  When the ship arrived in Vancouver on May 23, 1914 it was refused landing by the immigration officials leading to two month standoff.  The Canadian officials used a variety of legal delaying tactics in an attempt to wear off the defiant immigrants.  They were even denied basic provisions.  The ship was eventually turned away after two months and the shameful episode was forgotten in the din of the impending world war.  The passengers once they landed in Kolkata were fired upon and 20 of them were killed.

Richly illustrated with many rare photographs, Undesirables throws light on a dark chapter Canadian chapter which continues to haunt the country. Canada has still not issued a formal apology over the incident. Prime Minister Stephen Harper did apologize at a community event in 2008 but it fell short of what the activists have been demanding: a formal apology from the floor of the House of Commons.

The book highlights the solidarity of South Asians of the time which transcended religion. Husain Rahim, a realtor and activist, was one of the main organizers of the legal case in defence of the immigrants who were largely Sikh. Despite the intolerance of the majority of the population at that time there were many who offered their support to the aspiring immigrants. Lawyer J. Edward Bird enthusiastically fought the case of the Komagata Maru immigrants and others.   It also focuses on the role of intelligence officials, informants, the labour movement and the politicians.

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