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What was the Komagata Maru incident and why does it matter?

WATCH: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stood in the House of Commons Wednesday to apologize for the 1914 Komagata Maru incident.

At 3:15 p.m. ET Wednesday afternoon, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is expected to rise in the House of Commons and apologize for an incident that occurred just over a century ago in Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet.

For many Canadians, the name Komagata Maru means little. But what happened on that crowded ship in 1914 has become, for many scholars, emblematic of an entire period of Canadian history characterized by xenophobia, racism and exclusionary immigration policies.

Simply put, more than 350 people were denied entry to Canada and sent back across the Pacific Ocean — some of them to their deaths — because they weren’t the right colour or religion. Here’s a primer on what happened.

What was the Komagata Maru?

The Komagata Maru was a coal-transport steamship that had been converted into a passenger ship by Hong Kong-based businessman Gurdit Singh. It set off from Hong Kong in April 1914, reaching Vancouver’s harbour a month later with 376 people on board, most of them Sikhs like Singh.

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Sikh men and a boy are pictured onboard the Komagata Maru. Businessman Gurdit Singh is seen wearing a light-coloured suit in the left foreground.
Sikh men and a boy are pictured onboard the Komagata Maru. Businessman Gurdit Singh is seen wearing a light-coloured suit in the left foreground. Vancouver Public Library/Public Domain

Why was the ship turned away?

The Komagata Maru was, in a sense, designed as a test of Canada’s increasingly strict immigration policies. Among the most cumbersome requirements for new arrivals was the Continuous Passage regulation, instituted by the Canadian government in 1908. It stated that immigrants must “come from the country of their birth, or citizenship, by a continuous journey” and using tickets “purchased before leaving the country of their birth or citizenship.”

That means if you were born in India, went to China, and then continued on to Canada, you were illegal.

The trouble was, no steamships travelled directly between Calcutta and Vancouver. Even if an Indian national had somehow managed to make a continuous journey, another law stated that they needed $200 in their pockets in order to be welcomed into Canada.

The policies were specifically designed to curb the flow of Indian immigrants in the early 20th century, who were coming to Canada seeking work.

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They weren’t the only people who faced an uphill battle to get here. A few years before, a $500 entry tax for all Chinese immigrants was put in place, which is what led companies short on labourers to turn to India in the first place.

White, Christian migrants from northern Europe and America were seen as far more desirable.

Three men are pictured in front of the Komagata Maru, with passengers on deck. July 1914.
Three men are pictured in front of the Komagata Maru, with passengers on deck. July 1914. Vancouver Public Library/Public Domain

Singh knew about these preferences and policies, but argued that because the passengers on the Komagata Maru were British subjects, they should be able to move to another Commonwealth nation like Canada freely.

Canadian officials disagreed, and the ship was denied docking by the authorities. Just 20 returning Canadian residents, plus the Komagata Maru’s doctor and his family, were allowed to disembark.

What happened to everyone else?

Eventually, after a two-month standoff in the waters just off Vancouver, the ship was escorted back out to sea by the Canadian military. During the span of time it sat in the harbour, the Komagata Maru became something of a media sensation, and drew plenty of attention from the public at large.

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The steamship eventually ended up back in India, where, according to scholars at Simon Fraser University who have studied the incident, 19 of the passengers were killed by gunfire upon disembarking. Others were imprisoned.

Descendants of the passengers have been asking for a formal apology from Ottawa for years. Today, Canada’s Sikh population stands at a little under 500,000.

WATCH: Komagata Maru descendants speak ahead of Trudeau’s apology

Komagata Maru descendants speak ahead of Trudeau’s apology
Komagata Maru descendants speak ahead of Trudeau’s apology

An apology decades in the making

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s apology on Wednesday will come eight years after the provincial government in British Columbia offered a similar mea culpa. Former prime minister Stephen Harper did offer an apology on behalf of the federal government in 2008, but it was at a cultural gathering in British Columbia and not in the House of Commons.

It was summarily rejected by the Prof. Mohan Singh Memorial Foundation, which has been at the forefront of the requests for a formal apology. The foundation has sent several petitions to Ottawa over the last 25 years that yielded little in the way of results.

Then, in April, came the news that Trudeau would apologize in the House on May 18. The prime minister acknowledged that the ship was turned away because of clearly discriminatory policies.

“As a nation, we should never forget the prejudice suffered by the Sikh community at the hands of the Canadian government of the day,” he said. “We should not and we will not.”

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You can watch the apology live here at globalnews.ca, starting at 3 p.m. ET.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: Watch Global BC’s in-depth feature on the history of the Komagata Maru 

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