The Journey of the Komagata Maru
How a group of 376 British passport holders were rejected by Canada in the summer of 1914
The Komagata Maru 1914 – 2021
Raj Singh Toor
Vice President and Spokesperson
Descendants of the Komagata Maru Society
My name is Raj Singh Toor. I was born in Bhaini Araian Village, Ludhiana District, Punjab, India. I came to Canada in 1983, and have been living in Surrey for more than 20 years. I am a volunteer and the Vice President and spokesperson for the non-profit Descendants of the Komagata Maru Society. I am a founder of the Descendants of the Komagata Maru Society.
The Descendants of the Komagata Maru Society is composed of 15 families all over Canada who are direct descendants (children, grandchildren, or great grandchildren) of the passengers. The entire South Asian community supports us because we are the ones who suffered in losing loved ones and who deeply shared the pain of our parents, grandparents, or great grandparents being rejected by Canada in 1914.
Arrival in Vancouver
The Komagata Maru came to Vancouver on May 23, 1914, with 376 passengers, two women, four children, 340 Sikhs, 24 Muslims, and 12 Hindus, including my grandfather, Baba Puran Singh Janetpura. He was well-educated, having studied at an English-language high school in Ludhiana, Punjab, and telecommunications at the University of Amity. He was coming to Canada to further his education.
He was told at the time that any Indian who was part of the British Commonwealth would be welcomed to study further their studies in Canada. The passengers of the ship were all British subjects and thus British passport holders. I remember my grandfather telling us about his painful experience connected with this trip on the Komagata Maru. He told us how the Canadian government denied entry to all the passengers. The welcome received by the passengers of the Komagata Maru was a cold refusal by the government to allow the ship to dock. No food, water or medication was provided, even though it was the government’s discriminatory law that prevented the passengers from disembarking. The local South Asian and First Nations communities provided the passengers with food, water, and medication. Furthermore, this help was limited by the Canadian government because officials restricted the Canadian South Asian community from accessing the ship. Often the passengers went for 24 hours without food and water, and sometimes two or three days, or more. Passengers were getting sick. The passengers drank rain water while the ship’s Japanese crew was allowed to head to shore to get their own groceries. Even efforts by local South Asian and First Nations communities to transport provisions were rebuffed by the Canadian government.
The premier of British Columbia at the time was New Westminster-born Richard McBride. He was quite clear in his declaration that British Columbia should remain white. Those who were not white were not welcome. And people who were not Christian were not welcome.
Premier McBride explicitly stated his racist agenda on the night the Komagata Maru reached Vancouver: “To admit Orientals in large numbers would mean the end, the extinction of the white people.” He added, “And we always have in mind the necessity of keeping this a white man’s country.” McBride used this reasoning to justify his stance against allowing the passengers of the Komagata Maru to disembark in Vancouver, further stating, “We stand for a white British Columbia, a white land, and a white Empire.”
On June 23, 1914, Vancouver Mayor Truman Baxter organized an anti-Asian rally, and the first speaker was the prominent politician H. H. Stevens. “I have no ill-feeling against people coming from Asia personally,” he told the crowd, “but I reaffirm that the national life of Canada will not permit any large degree of immigration from Asia . . . I intend to stand up absolutely on all occasions on this one great principle—of a white country and a white British Columbia.”
The overflow crowd of 2,000 unanimously adopted a resolution proposed by Vancouver Alderman Frank E. Woodside to immediately deport the passengers. The body of the motion declared, “And whereas it is the universal opinion of all citizens resident upon the Pacific Coast of the Dominion of Canada, that the influx of Asiatics is detrimental and hurtful to the best interests of the Dominion, from the standpoint of citizenship, public morals and labor conditions:” Alderman Woodside further declared at this meeting, “We have here now about 4000 Hindoos, which is more than we want…” (The Vancouver World, June 24, 1914).
On the night of June 29, 1914, Vancouver City Council unanimously passed a resolution moved by Alderman William R. Hamilton, and seconded by Alderman Malcolm McBeath, protesting the ship’s landing in Canada, and stating that Vancouver City Council was “unalterably opposed to the admittance of Hindus and other Asiatic races into this country.” The motion further stated that “… these people would prove a serious menace to our civilization, both economically and socially …” Alderman McBeath was later to become Vancouver Mayor from 1916 – 1917.
New Westminster City Council passed a motion on June 22, 1914 stating “That this Council go on record as being opposed to this immigration, and that the Clerk be instructed to urge upon the Premier and the Minister of the Interior at Ottawa to use every effort to prevent admission of these people into the Country.”
One week later, on June 29, 1914, New Westminster Mayor A. W. Gray and a majority of the city council attended a community meeting asking “the Federal authorities at Ottawa to invoke the full power of the present statues and if necessary, enact new laws, to effectively deal with the total exclusion of Asiatics from this country.”
Leaving Canada and then Facing Violence in India
Komagata Maru passengers were starving, they were thirsty, and they were getting sick. They had a very painful, hard time. The ship was sent back to India after two months, forcefully, under the shadow of a military ship as a result of a discriminatory act by the Government of Canada, without allowing the passengers to disembark.
The British were ruling India at that time, and when the Komagata Maru arrived in India, British troops shot at the passengers. Around 20 people were killed on the spot. Many were injured, and the rest of them were put in jail for a long period of time.
Most of the passengers, including my grandfather, joined the freedom movement. The Komagata Maru Incident was a very important event leading up to India’s independence in 1947. In 1962, my grandfather was recognized by the Punjab, India government for his services and for his active role in the Indian freedom movement. In 1968 my uncle sponsored my grandfather to come to Canada. However, my grandfather refused, saying that he had a painful, bitter memory of Canada. He said that he would not go there, but the South Asian community would go there and would be very successful and live happily and peacefully there. His words came true. Today the South Asian community in Canada is living very successfully, happily, and peacefully.
The Descendants of the Komagata Maru Society and myself worked for more than 15 years for apologies from both provincial and federal governments. We never asked for any compensation.
Apology from the BC Government
On May 23, 2008, at the request of the Descendants of the Komagata Maru Society, the BC government apologized for the events of May 23, 1914, stating that “The House deeply regrets that the passengers, who sought refuge in our country and our province, were turned away without benefit of the fair and impartial treatment befitting a society where people of all cultures are welcomed and accepted.” I witnessed this apology. I would like to say thank you to the BC Government for giving us a respectful and formal apology in the BC Legislature.
Apology from the Canadian Government
Before the 2015 federal election, I had meetings with Justin Trudeau and asked him if under the circumstance they would form the government, whether he would apologize for the Komagata Maru incident? He said, “Yes, Mr. Toor.”
After the election, Justin Trudeau became the prime minister and he followed through on his promise of an official apology. The Prime Minister’s Office sent us the official invitation to witness the Komagata Maru apology in the House of Commons. We witnessed this and sat in the Speaker’s Gallery in front of the Prime Minister. In the House of Commons on May 18, 2016, Prime Minister Trudeau apologized to the descendants of the Komagata Maru and the South Asian community. The Canadian Government apologized for the events of May 23, 1914, stating that it was sorry for its indifference and discriminatory laws, and that it was committed “to positive action – to learning from the mistakes of the past, and to making sure that we never repeat them.” I am thankful to the Honourable Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for giving us a respectful apology in the House of Commons.
Apology from Vancouver City Council
On March 3, 2020, I made a request to the City of Vancouver Council
A. THAT Council formally apologizes for the previous Council’s injustices and their cruel effects on individuals and families impacted by the Komagata Maru incident.
B. THAT the City of Vancouver declare, by proclamation, that May 23rd shall be known as “Komagata Maru Remembrance Day” in Vancouver.
On June 10, 2020, Councillor Jean Swanson brought forward the Komagata Maru apology and proclamation motion. I spoke at this meeting supporting the motion and the motion was passed unanimously.
On May 18, 2021 the City of Vancouver Council again formally apologized for the Council’s past role in supporting the Federal Government’s discriminatory law and passed the following motion:
I, Kennedy Stewart, Mayor of the City of Vancouver, on behalf of this Council DO HEREBY FORMALLY AND SINCERELY APOLOGIZE for Vancouver City Council’s June 29, 1914 resolution and the cruel effects it had on individuals and families impacted by the Komagata Maru incident, and to PROCLAIM Sunday, May 23rd, 2021, as
“KOMAGATA MARU DAY OF REMEMBRANCE” in the City of Vancouver.
I would like to say thank you to respected Mayor Kennedy Stewart and the City of Vancouver Council for giving us a respectful, meaningful, and sincere apology and for proclaiming May 23, 2021 as Komagata Maru Remembrance Day in the City of Vancouver. It’s a great tribute to those passengers who suffered during the tragedy.
Survivors’ Totem Pole
I also volunteered for three years on the committee that was responsible for the Survivors’ Totem Pole that was raised on November 5, 2016 in Pigeon Park in Vancouver. This totem pole honours survivors of the Downtown East Side and also those victims of colonialism, racism and poverty. I represented the South Asian Community and in particular, the passengers of the Komagata Maru.
Komagata Maru Park in Brampton
The City Council of Brampton, Ontario officially opened the Komagata Maru Park on June 22, 2019, in memory of the Komagata Maru passengers. What made this event special is that even though they are 4300 kilometres away from where the Komagata Maru was detained, the people of Brampton felt it was important to recognize those who were hurt by this incident. I was officially invited by the City of Brampton Council and honoured me. I spoke in the event and shared my grandfather painful story about the Komagata Maru incident and thanked the Mayor Patrick Brown and City of Brampton Council for recognizing the Komagata Maru passengers.
Komagata Maru Way in Surrey
In November 2018, I wrote an email to the Surrey City Council and Mayor Doug McCallum on behalf of the Descendants of the Komagata Maru Society, requesting the renaming of a street in memory of the Komagata Maru passengers. I had numerous meetings with the Heritage Commission, City of Surrey staff and Mayor McCallum. After months of diligent follow up, a motion was brought to council on July 8, 2019. Surrey City Council approved the renaming of 75A Avenue between 120 Street and 121A Street to “Komagata Maru Way.” They also approved the installation of a storyboard at R. A. Nicholson Park, explaining the history of the Komagata Maru.
In memory of the Komagata Maru passengers, on July 31, 2019, Mayor McCallum and myself unveiled the Komagata Maru Way Street sign. On September 17, 2020, the City of Surrey installed a Komagata Maru storyboard at R.A. Nicholson Park.
I would like to say thank you to Respected Mayor Doug McCallum and the City Council of Surrey for recognizing the Komagata Maru passengers and their painful experience.
Storyboard in Delta
On December 15, 2019 I gave a request to the City of Delta Council for recognizing the Komagata Maru passengers in the City of Delta.
As a result of my work with the Delta City Council, at the December 14, 2020 council meeting, a motion was passed to recognize the injustice suffered by the passengers of the Komagata Maru.
The city installed a Komagata Maru storyboard in the North Delta Social Heart Plaza so that residents may be better informed of the hardships and struggle that the passengers of the Komagata Maru endured.
I would like to say thank you to Mayor George Harvie and the city council of Delta for their work in recognizing the Komagata Maru.
New Westminster Ferry Docks
On August 19, 2019, I made a request to the City of New Westminster Council for recognizing the Komagata Maru passengers.
On October 7, 2019, I approached the council requesting the naming of a park or street or civic asset in memory of the Komagata Maru. The council then passed unanimously a motion “THAT staff report on the connection of New Westminster to the Komagata Maru incident. In particular, the report should provide documentation of the support the New Westminster South Asian community provided to the passengers of the Komagata Maru.” The mover of the motion, Councillor Das advised that the verification of this history could lead to the naming of a city asset after the Komagata Maru.
The city of New Westminster now has the report, prepared by Robert McCullough, Manager of Museums and Heritage Services which recommends the naming the QtoQ Ferry docks in Queensborough and Downtown in commemoration of the Komagata Maru. This report also provides Council with contextual information surrounding City connections to this history and recommends that interpretation of the Komagata Maru history accompany the naming of these civic assets.
On March 1, 2021, I gave a speech at the City of New Westminster council meeting. After my speech, the council passed a motion unanimously to rename the QtoQ Ferry docks and the trail connected to the Queensborough dock in memory of the Komagata Maru passengers. As well, interpretive signage will be installed to tell the story of the Komagata Maru and to recognize members of the community found to have participated in supporting passengers of the ship.
Also, the City of New Westminster Council passed a resolution to draft a formal apology to the community, families, and descendants of those who were impacted negatively by New Westminster City Council’s actions and words in its attempt to block the entry of the passengers of the Komagata Maru into Canada. I support this resolution. Also at my request, the council proclaimed May 23 as Komagata Maru Remembrance Day in the City of New Westminster.
The City of New Westminster apologizes to the South Asian community and descendants of the Komagata Maru Posted On: September 28, 2021
New Westminster – On Monday, September 27 at the Open Meeting of Council, with representatives of the South Asian Community in attendance, Mayor Jonathan X. Cote read the City of New Westminster’s official apology to the community, families and descendants of those who were impacted negatively by actions and words of the council of New Westminster during the Komagata Maru incident.
“Our apology tonight cannot take back the City’s regrettable views and actions of the past, but I hope it shows that we at the City are committed to doing better and building deeper connections to not only the South Asian community, but to all ethnic and cultural groups in New Westminster,” said Mayor Jonathan X. Cote. “Thank you to our South Asian community for hearing our apology and I look forward to working with you in the future to build a more connected and inclusive community for all.”
The apology was drafted and approved following a council meeting in on October 28, 2019, at which time Mr. Raj Singh Toor, spokesperson for the Descendants of the Komagata Maru Society, attended and asked the City to consider naming a street, park, or other City asset after the Komagata Maru. After staff were directed to report back on any connection between New Westminster and the Komagata Maru incident, no proof was found of direct support by New Westminster’s South Asian community to the passengers of the Komagata Maru. Staff did find, however, that City actions at the time were supportive of discriminatory, racist and exclusionary laws that ultimately brought about the plight of the passengers.
“The Komagata Maru apology will help educate the community and remind us of how unique and diverse Canada’s and New Westminster’s makeup is,” said Mr. Raj Singh Toor, spokesperson for the Descendants of the Komagata Maru Society. “We are all richer when we remember how special it is to have so many different ethnic communities living together. I hope that it will help to connect Canadians, British Columbians, and New Westminster residents with their past to build a more peaceful and tolerant tomorrow. I am glad to be a part of making this happen.”
The City’s apology acknowledges that its past views and actions are not consistent with current Council values and strategic priorities around Reconciliation, Inclusion and Engagement – specifically, to create a welcoming, inclusive, and accepting community that promotes a deep understanding and respect for all cultures.
Further to the apology, Council will be naming the Queensborough River Walk as well as the Q to Q Ferry docks in Queensborough and Downtown in commemoration of the Komagata Maru. These locations will include interpretive signage describing the Komagata Maru incident and the City’s connections to it.
To view the council meeting and see the full apology, visit www.newwestcity.ca/council.
On behalf of the Descendents of the Komagata Maru Society, I would like to say thank you to Respected Mayor Jonathan X. Coté and Councillor Chinu Das, all the other councillors, Robert McCullough, and the rest of the city staff for their work in making this recognition and apology of the Komagata Maru a reality.
Harry Stevens’ Name Taken Off Federal Building
In 2018 I wrote an email to the Honourable Prime Minister Justin Trudeau when I heard that a federal building in Vancouver was named after Harry Stevens, one of the men responsible for turning away the Komagata Maru. Descendants of the Komagata Maru families and the South Asian Community wanted to remove the Harry Stevens name from this building. I received a reply back from the Prime Minister’s Office noting that Harry Steven’s name would be removed from this building.
On August 9, 2019, the Honourable Minister Carla Qualtrough officially removed Harry Stevens’ name from this federal building. I gave a speech at the event and thanked the Minister and the Prime Minister for their response to my request. I also shared my grandfather’s painful story about the Komagata Maru. The removal of Harry Stevens’ name from the building will help educate the community and the new mural painted on the walls will remind us of how unique Canada’s diverse makeup is. We are all richer when we remember how special it is to have so many different ethnic communities living together. While it can’t right past wrongs, I hope that it will help to connect Canadians with their past in order to build a more peaceful and tolerant tomorrow.
Request to Rename a Civic Asset in Vancouver
On March 16, 2018, I wrote an email on behalf of the Descendants of the Komagata Maru Society to the City of Vancouver and requested for a street, building, park, or place to be named in memory of the Komagata Maru passengers. Vancouver City Council considered my request and sent the matter to the Civic Assets Naming Committee. On June 25, 2018, the committee unanimously approved the request and put the name “Komagata Maru” on the Civic Asset Name Reserve List. On March 13, 2019, Vancouver City Council unanimously approved the following motion:
- THAT Council shows its support for the naming of a civic asset in the Downtown area near the Burrard Inlet waterfront after the Komagata Maru.
- THAT Council direct City staff to work with Park Board staff and with the Civic Asset Naming Committee and the ‘Descendants of the Komagata Maru Society’ to try to find an asset to name.
Currently we are looking to rename a street or park in Vancouver near the Burrard Inlet waterfront after the Komagata Maru. I am working on this with various city staff members.
As well, I am working with other cities and provinces on getting buildings, parks and streets renamed in honour of the passengers of the Komagata Maru, and removing the names from streets and buildings of the people whose racist actions brought about the suffering experienced by the passengers of the Komagata Maru.
Also at my request the City of Surrey, the City of Port Coquitlam, the City of Burnaby, the City of Victoria, the City of New Westminster, the City of Vancouver, and the Province of British Columbia proclaimed May 23 as Komagata Maru Remembrance Day.
With these apologies for past racist actions, and numerous recognitions of the ordeal suffered by the Komagata Maru passengers, we can see a new and much brighter chapter of the Komagata Maru story being written. These actions of apology and recognition are showing BC and Canada to be much more tolerant and inclusive communities. We are extremely happy and thankful to be part of this very important change.
We cannot undo the past but we can move forward and leave a legacy for future generations by educating them about the past. Today’s youth will be the future mayors, premiers, and prime ministers, and if they truly learn about the important story of the Komagata Maru, I am certain that they will not repeat the same mistakes of previous generations.
My grandfather passed away in 1974. In 1976 the Punjab government and our family built a hospital in his village Janetpura in his memory. About 6 villages near this hospital use their medical services.
My grandfather used to say one day you could be rich, the next day you could be poor. You could lose everything, but the one thing that no one can take away is your education. So give more education to your children. As my grandfather said — as people become better educated, the less discrimination there will be.