& occasionally about other things, too...

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Undesirables - 2

Undesirables – White Canada and the Komagata Maru An Illustrated History is a different book in many ways. It discusses a grim chapter in Canada’s history, but the format it uses is of a richly illustrated coffee table book. This is perhaps because the author is a filmmaker; and the visuals and images in the book compliment the narrative.

The book is a revelation in many ways – the ingenious ways that Canada conjured to keep non-whites away and the equally imaginative ways they and especially Indians managed to find their way here.

All this is narrated with an archivist’s zeal, an historian’s eye for detail, and a polemicist penchant for nuanced interpretation.

Indians aboard the Komagata Maru
The Komagata Maru was a Japanese ship chartered by a Sikh entrepreneur, Gurdit Singh, in 1914, to carry South Asian immigrants to Canada. It had nearly 400 passengers – a majority Sikhs, but also Hindus and Muslims. These British India immigrants wanted to settle in British Canada, and wanted to prove that they would be treated equally.

However, the ship wasn't allowed to berth in Vancouver, and was stopped half-a-mile outside Vancouver shore. All the passengers were detained. In a confrontation that followed, Canada tried everything possible to force Gurdit Singh and his fellow passengers to return where they had come from. 

Although a mere footnote in Canada, the Komagata Maru incident is a remarkable story that had deep ramifications on the Indian freedom movement. Recently, Prime Minister Harper offered an apology for Canada’s actions during the incident, but Canadian Sikhs aren't entirely satisfied because it wasn't offered in the Parliament.

The book delineates how Canada actively discouraged non-white immigrants from reaching its shores legally. It had the continuous journey law which given the nature of sea voyages in the early 20th century made it impossible for non-whites from Asia to reach Canada’s shores without a stopover.

To add to the complication, William Lyon MacKenzie King added two provisions to the Immigration Act of 1906.
  • All immigrants must come to Canada via a thorough ticket and by continuous journey from their country of birth or citizenship
  • All immigrants from Asia must have in their possession $200

This effectively ebbed a rising tide of the great unwashed landing on Canadian shores.

The book details some truly breathtaking prejudices:

HH Stevens, a Member of Parliament from Vancouver was categorical: “The Hindus (a term used to describe all South Asians) never did one solitary thing for humanity in the past two thousand years and will probably not in the next two thousand.”

Kazimi notes elsewhere:

“Oriental” immigration was a major issue for British Columbia’s politicians across party lines. R. G. MacPherson, the incumbent Liberal member of Parliament from Vancouver was under considerable pressure from his constituents to have Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier take a stand. On September 21, 1906, he wrote to Laurier about the influx of immigrants from South Asia:

You can never make good Canadian citizens out of them or their descendants and it is just as necessary to keep them out as it is to keep out the Chinese. Most of them are big strapping fellows, men who have fought in British regiments in the little Indian wars, but their ideas and their ways are not ours, nor can they ever be so. These people from India come here along just like the Chinese and nothing on earth could make them Canadians.”

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