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Name of man behind Komagata Maru incident removed from Vancouver federal gov’t building

WATCH: A Service Canada building in Vancouver no longer bears the name of the former B.C. politician behind the infamous Komagata Maru incident. Squire Barnes explains what it took to have Harry Stevens' name removed, and why it's a B.C. first.

A federal government building in Vancouver no longer bears the name of the local politician behind the infamous Komagata Maru incident.

Members of Parliament officially removed Harry Stevens’ name from the Service Canada building at Quebec Street and East 10 Avenue Friday, marking the first time a federal building has had its name changed in B.C.

“Today is about acknowledging our history: learning from it and vowing to never allow the wrongs of the past to happen again,” said Minister of National Defence and Vancouver South MP Harjit Sajjan.

WATCH: (May 18, 2016) Vancouver building named after main figure in Komagata Maru incident

Vancouver building named after main figure in Komogata Maru incident
Vancouver building named after main figure in Komogata Maru incident

In 1914, the Komagata Maru steamship arrived in Vancouver carrying 376 Indian passengers, nearly all of them Sikhs looking to emigrate to Canada.

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After letting just 20 passengers disembark, the ship was turned back to India, where the passengers were fired upon by British authorities. Nineteen Sikhs were killed, and dozens more were imprisoned.

At the time, Canadian immigration laws prohibited entry to most Indians, despite both countries sharing space under the British Empire.

READ MORE: Vancouver building named after man behind Komagata Maru decision

One of the law’s most ardent champions was Stevens, who was the Conservative MP for the then-riding of Vancouver City from 1911 to 1917, and would continue to represent the city in the Vancouver Centre riding until 1930.

In 1914, historical accounts say he directed much of his energy towards countering the “Asian threat to Canada’s future as ‘a white man’s country.'”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized on behalf of the Canadian government for the incident in 2016.

READ MORE: Justin Trudeau formally apologizes for Komagata Maru incident

But Stevens’ name remained on the Vancouver building, serving as a painful reminder to the South Asian community and descendants of the Komagata Maru victims.

“Removing Harry Stevens’ name from the federal building will help educate the community and remind us of how unique Canada’s makeup is,” said Raj Toor with the Descendants of Komagata Maru Society, whose grandfather was one of the passengers on that ship.

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“While it can’t right past wrongs, I hope it will help connect Canadians with their past or to build a more peaceful and tolerant tomorrow.”

WATCH: (May 18, 2016) Trudeau issues apology for Komagata Maru incident

Trudeau issues apology for Komagata Maru incident
Trudeau issues apology for Komagata Maru incident

Naveen Girn with the South Asian Canadian Cultural Society pointed out Stevens ironically helped historians document the history of the Komagata Maru incident through his writings, speeches and spy documents from the time.

“Consider this idea, that a man who was such a racist, who had that power because he was elected to enact his racist beliefs, as a community and as scholars we’re dependent on his record to tell this important story,” he said.

The removal came with the unveiling of a new mural on the side of the building that depicts the tragedy, along with recognizing the Indigenous peoples who provided food and water to the stranded passengers.

WATCH: (July 31) Komagata Maru Way unveiled in Surrey to honour victims

Komagata Maru Way unveiled in Surrey to honour victims
Komagata Maru Way unveiled in Surrey to honour victims
“[This mural] is an opportunity to decentre that colonial history of what the written word can be, and recentre the oral history and oral traditions of communities,” Girn said.

“On this building now will be a marker for that shared relationship.”

The speakers, which included other members of Parliament of Indian descent, said the removal was another step towards reconciliation and promoting new policies of inclusion.

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“Right now we look back and look at the decisions that were made a hundred years ago and say, ‘What were they thinking?'” Sajjan said. “We must stand up now to make sure leaders don’t make decisions so that our grandchildren don’t look back at us and say, ‘What were they thinking?’ That’s why this is important.”