Thursday, May 29, 2008

Apology gives Indo-Canadian story a new ending

Deddeda Stemler photo

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
May 29,2008


The story passed from grandfather to father to son, from grandmother to mother to daughter. It was handed down from a generation for which it was a living memory to one for which it was a cautionary tale to a third generation, born in this land, for which it was an injustice in need of an apology.

In the early 1960s, when he was a boy of six or seven, Munmohan Singh Sihota remembers visiting the Sikh temple outside Duncan on a day when his father, a mill worker, told him an incredible tale.

A boatload of immigrants from the Punjab, the father’s birthplace, had arrived in Vancouver harbour after an arduous voyage across the Pacific. They were refused permission to land. As days passed into weeks, conditions on board deteriorated. Water was in short supply, the food barely edible.

The authorities, fearing an end to Canada as a “white man’s country,” ordered the ship to return to India. The passengers prevented the Japanese crew from lifting anchor. After eight weeks, a raiding party of 200 policemen and special constables tried to board the steamer, only to be beaten back.

The next day, the navy cruiser Rainbow escorted the steamer out of the harbour.

The boy would never forget the singsong name of the ship, Komagata Maru, nor the travails of its passengers — 340 Sikhs, 24 Muslims, 12 Hindus, all British subjects. The mere mention of the steamer brought to mind a photograph of the passengers with the beards and turbans of observant Sikhs.

The boy grew up, earned a law degree, won a council seat in Esquimalt. In 1986, Moe Sihota became the first Indo-Canadian to be elected to a legislature in this country, a designation that did not mean much to him at the time.

He raised the issue of the Komagata Maru in the Legislature.
“I remember the political brouhaha,” he said.

In 1989, on the 75th anniversary of the vessel’s arrival in British Columbia waters, a member of the governing Social Credit party noted the date and described it as a day of “provincial disgrace.”

Mr. Sihota then asked the Socred tourism minister what had been prepared to commemorate the incident.

“The simple answer,” replied Bill Reid, “is nothing.”

Later, the minister would insist any commemoration would be the responsibility of private groups and not the government.

Later still, during a heated exchange about another matter, Mr. Reid taunted Mr. Sihota by shouting out, “Komagata Maru! Komagata Maru!”

Mr. Sihota felt a flash of anger, a memory that lingers.

On Friday, the 94th anniversary of the vessel’s arrival, the atmosphere inside the Legislature was entirely different. The public gallery included descendants of the passengers forcibly expelled from Canada.

Government House leader Michael de Jong introduced a motion apologizing for the events.

“Happily, times have changed,” he said. “Unhappily, the ability to present this apology directly to the victims of the events of 1914 no longer exists.”

“They encountered racism and hatred,” Attorney-General Wally Oppal. “As they remained on ship, they were deprived of many of the necessities of life. Elected officials, members of the media and the public collectively fanned the flames of hatred. They cry of the day was that Canada was a white man’s country.

“Today this treatment would be unimaginable.”

As unimaginable as it would have been in 1914 to have a legislature in which members carry such venerable family names as Bains, Brar, Lali, Hayer, Chouhan.

If the story had been passed from generation to generation in some communities, in other households it was ignored.

Lorne Mayencourt admitted he had not known of what he called “this black mark on our history” until just a few years ago.

Why an apology?

“What it offers is healing,” Harry Lali told the House. “It offers healing, even though it’s 94 years late.”

The motion passed unanimously. The news made The Times of India and was carried by the Press Trust of India. The federal government is working on an apology, as well.

Some commentators, notably Jeffrey Simpson in this newspaper, decry what they call an apology industry that seeks money for long-ago misdeeds.

For Mr. Sihota, though, the simple act of apology carries significance.

“It has resonance and meaning,” he said. “It’s another reflection that we are what we say we are. We are a society that encourages the sharing of cultures and respects the differences of religions and languages. It fortifies our embrace of multiculturalism.”

Mr. Sihota left electoral politics seven years ago, ending a controversial career that saw him twice resign and be reinstated to cabinet following conflict-of-interest investigations. Some saw him as brash, others as bold. His opponents called him a pit bull.

These days, he appears on a CBC political panel, works as a consultant, owns a share of an Edmonton golf course, and is currently supervising the completion of a Sheraton hotel in Langford set to open next month.

Whatever else he is and whatever else he does, he remains the son of a man from Barapind in the Punjab, who passed on to him an unforgettable story of tribulation. Mr. Sihota himself was born in 1955, just eight years after the franchise was restored to Indo-Canadians. (The right to vote had been taken away in 1907.) Raised in the Cowichan Valley, he had gone to university and like so many of his generation had joined one of the professions — law, education, civil service — from which his parents had been barred.

He remembers on election night in 1986, as he prepared to speak to a raucous celebration at the Esquimalt Recreation Centre, looking at the faces of those standing against the walls.

“They were all old-timers. They hadn’t been involved in my campaign, but I knew them from all different walks of life as I was growing up.

“They were there to see something they didn’t think was ever going to happen” — an Indo-Canadian, one of their own, in the Legislature.

More than 20 years later, after Mr. Sihota first raised the question of an apology, the story of the Komagata Maru has a new ending.

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