Lest we forget: the Komagata Maru and the dark corners of Canadian WWI history

Sports commentator Don Cherry has drawn widespread criticism for his recent controversial comments claiming that newcomer immigrants do not seem to wear the poppy pins customarily worn on Remembrance Day to commemorate Canadian soldiers killed in the line of duty. 

“You people … you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey, at least you can pay a couple bucks for a poppy or something like that,” Cherry said. “These guys paid for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada, these guys paid the biggest price” 

Social media users and political pundits alike chimed in to express their outrage at Cherry’s comments. A slew of opinion pieces ensued, with Stu Cowan from the Montreal Gazette calling Cherry’s comments disgraceful, while Adam Kassam wrote a piece for CBC arguing that Cherry “dangerously perverts Canada’s national identity.” 

Perhaps an uncomfortable irony for the Canadian public however, is that Don Cherry’s polarizing “us and them” language quite accurately represents widespread Canadian attitudes at the time of the end of the First World War, when the first Remembrance Day was inaugurated. Let’s take a closer look at that dark corner of Canadian history, however embarrassing it may be, lest we forget. 

One of the voices of criticism highlighted by the media in the wake of Cherry’s comments has been that of Jagmeet Singh, the leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party and a high profile Sikh political figure. 

 

Singh’s tweet in response to Cherry featured a rare photo of his great grandfather Hira Singh, who served under the British during World War I and II. But one has to wonder – wouldn’t an example of a Sikh soldier in the Canadian army be a more powerful rebuttal against Cherry’s offensive remarks? 

It probably would have – except for the fact that Sikh volunteers in the Canadian Army during the First World War were few and far between – only 9 were ever recorded to have served in the Canadian forces. 

This isn’t because Sikhs (and other communities of color in Canada at the time) were unwilling to fight for Canada and the Allied Powers. Hundreds of black and brown immigrants were eager to enlist – but nearly all of them were rejected by recruiters. 

The fact of the matter is, in the years leading up to the First World War, Canada was taking aggressive steps to restrict the immigration of Sikhs and other non-white groups while actively encouraging and promoting the accelerated immigration of Europeans. 

But perhaps no single event captures the Canadian political zeitgeist of the time better than the infamous Komagata Maru incident. 

 

 

On April 4th, 1914, only a few months before the entire world would be plummeted into a devastating global war, a ship set sail from a port in Hong Kong. There were 376 passengers on board, all of them from Punjab, India. 

The ship stopped over in Shanghai, then in Yokohama to pick up more passengers, finally setting it’s course for the coast of Vancouver. But most of the passengers would never set foot on Canadian soil.

When the ship arrived at Burrard Inlet on May 23rd, Canadian immigration officers prevented the ship from docking, claiming that the passengers had violated Canadian immigration law.

This was true, actually. In 1908, the Canadian government enacted a series of restrictive immigration regulations. One of these stipulated that immigrants bound for Canada had to arrive by way of one continuous journey, with no stopovers permitted. This regulation succeeded in dramatically halting immigration from Asia. Immigration from Europe, however, remained conveniently, largely unaffected by this stipulation. 

For good measure, the Canadian government also stipulated that all immigrants “of Asiatic origin” would be required to come equipped with at least 200 Canadian dollars (compared to the 25 dollars required of European immigrants), another measure which drastically reduced the number of Asian immigrants eligible to emigrate to Canada. 

Because the Komagata Maru had stopped over in Shanghai and Yokohama, immigration officials argued the passengers had violated the continuous journey stipulation. Officials also used methods of foot-dragging, extended immigration interviews and drawn out health examinations to further deter passengers from disembarking, hoping to starve out the passengers and force them to return home. 

When the passengers protested the conditions and duration of their detainment, a Canadian Naval ship was eventually summoned to escort the ship away from the port. Only 20 of the passengers who were former Canadian residents were allowed to disembark. After 2 months of being held at bay, and with dwindling food and water supplies, the Komagata Maru departed from the Vancouver coast bound for Calcutta. 

The nightmare wasn’t quite over for the passengers of the Komagata Maru, however. Once they docked at the Calcutta harbor, forces of the British Raj detained the passengers, fearing that there were political agitators in support of Indian independence on board. A riot broke out, and the police opened fire. 19 of the passengers were killed. Some escaped, while others remained detained.

The 1908 immigration ordinances and the Komagata Maru incident proved a powerful deterrent for Indians hoping to emigrate to Canada. In the wake of the immigration controversy, the Sikh population of Canada was nearly halved, many of them opting to relocate to the United States, despite similarly precarious conditions there for non-white immigrants.

One of the dominant reactions to Don Cherry’s comments seems to be an impulse to assert that as Canadians, we are better than this, or that at least we should be. Jagmeet Singh’s tweet to Cherry was just one of many responses attempting to demonstrate that we cannot be so easily divided into groups of “us” and “you people,” that the values of diversity and multiculturalism are cornerstones of the Canadian national identity. 

Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan for example responded to Cherry’s remarks by asserting that “Canadians know that diversity is our strength and our proud military history shows that.” 

However, an honest, unwavering look of our historical record proves otherwise. And while we would like to think that our days of anti-immigrant prejudice and white supremacy are long behind us, figures like Don Cherry remind us that the past is never too far behind. 

In this season of Remembrance in which our collective historical memory of the First World War plays a particularly important role, let’s remember the past as it was, and not as flattering, fictionalized portrait. Lest we forget; Don Cherry’s racist comments may be more Canadian than we would like to think.

 

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