100th Anniversary of Komagata Maru
Singers and drummers led the massive dinner crowd through the entrance to the large hall at the Musqueam Community Centre in Vancouver. As the people found their way to the tables and settled into their chairs, the singing and drumming continued to welcome people in.
As Musqueam Elder Larry Grant would later explain, “If the boat [Komagata Maru] had come the other way through Indian Arm we would have welcomed the boat as the first peoples…” Musqueam Councillor Wade Grant added, “Our [First Nations] people can feel your pain because we have faced racism since Canada and this land is still illegally occupied… We can learn a little more about who you are and you can learn more about who we are.”
The Komagata Maru incident, as it is now known, took place one hundred years earlier on May 23, 1914. The ship was a Japanese freighter with 376 British passengers including 340 Sikhs, 12 Hindus, and 24 Muslims, and it arrived in English Bay to test the Continuous Journey Act. The racist act was designed to exclude people from India. For two months, the ship remained in Burrard Inlet and only 24 passengers (former residents) were allowed to come ashore. The ship and the remaining passengers were forced to leave. The passengers faced violence when they returned to India with 29 shot and 20 who died.
Stories of those aboard the Komagata Maru were shared by family members at the gala dinner that took place on traditional Musqueam territory. Komagata Maru Heritage Society president Harbhajan Gill also introduced the new Komagata Maru 100th Anniversary postage stamp that night.
Greater Vancouver Japanese Canadian Citizens Association (JCCA) Human Rights Committee Chair Lorene Oikawa attended the event and presented Gill with a letter from GVJCCA president Derek Iwanaka who commented that “Combatting injustice and racism is an ongoing responsibility, and remembering the Komagata Maru incident provides a valuable lesson so that our society can continue to progress beyond the inhumanity of the past.”
One of the speakers, UBC’s Dr. Henry Yu, noted that seven years earlier he was co-chair of the Anniversaries of Change Steering Committee which had representatives from the Japanese Canadian, Chinese Canadian, South Asian Canadian, and Aboriginal communities who “were systematically deprived of the ability to vote, to own certain pieces of land, to live in certain places, to work in certain industries.” Members of academia and the labour movement were also a part of this group who planned events to commemorate the 1907 Anti-Asian riots 100 years later and to take action against racism. “We still live in the aftermath of the white supremacy that led to the anti-Asian riots of 1907. It left a legacy of discriminatory laws and social exclusion that we still have not completely overcome.”
Oikawa concurs and says, “When we don’t know our history, our past mistakes are too easily repeated. In World War II, Canadians of Japanese ancestry were unfairly labelled enemy aliens and were incarcerated and had all of their property taken away. The Japanese Canadian community thought it would never happen again and were horrified to see, after 9-11, the profiling and targeting of anyone who appeared to be Muslim.” Oikawa said that the collaboration between community, labour and academia needs to continue. “There is strength in our collective voices speaking out against racism and racist policies.”
Oikawa was pleased to meet up with some of the members of the Anniversaries of Change at the dinner. She was part of the Anniversaries of Change, representing both labour and the Japanese Canadian community, and Tatsuo Kage represented the GVJCCA.
The night was filled with speakers and entertainment culminating in the launch of the Komagata Maru Centennial Souvenir book and the Canada Post postage stamp commemorating the centennial.