100 years of turning people away: The anniversary of the Komagata Maru

Komagata Maru

After entering Burrard Inlet in the early morning of May 23rd, 1914, the Komagata Maru stopped a kilometre from the shore and dropped anchor. Authorities prevented the 376 passengers of the ship from landing.

This was in part because of the Continuous Journey regulation added to Canada’s Immigration Act in 1908 which required that all migrants come to Canada on a single, direct trip. Because the ship had made a short stop in Japan on the long journey from Hong Kong to Vancouver, the regulation meant that its passengers couldn’t disembark.

Despite Chief Justice Gordon Hunter’s declaration the year before that the regulation was unlawful, the Komagata Maru, and its refugees, were left floating away from shore. After two months, on July 23rd, the ship finally lifted anchor and left Vancouver.

But the incident left its mark and further entrenched a set of practices regarding migration which we see to this day.

The continuous journey regulation, for instance, is echoed in 2002’s Canada’s Safe Third Country agreement with the United States.

And when the Komagata Maru was forced to remain anchored off shore, where the passengers had fewer opportunities to respond legally, we see yet another remnant in our current practices.

In 1913, less than a year before the Komagata Maru reached Vancouver, 29 Sikhs aboard a Japanese ship called the Panama Maru were detained. The South Asian community was able to mount a legal response when the passengers reached land. “In this country it was pointed out that the Hindoos were allowed to land as far as the detention shed and that there they could claim that they were in Canada and they could invoke the Habeas Corpus act against detention or deportation,” wrote Pascoe Goard, a member of the British-Israel Association, to Vancouver MP H.H. Stevens, leading him to propose a recommendation regarding Komagata Maru. “This will be tried if they are allowed to land. I suggest that they who are now said to be coming on a Japanese boat be kept on board where they will be unable to claim such court action.”

Today, migrants are similarly kept in a legal limbo. One of the ways that’s achieved is through the dramatic increase in migrants held in detention holding cells.

In August 2010, for instance, 492 Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seekers reached B.C.’s shores on the MV Sun Sea, a Thai cargo ship.

All 380 men – teenagers included – were detained at the Fraser Regional Correctional Centre. The women without children were held at the Alouette Correctional Centre for Women; those with children ended up at the Burnaby Youth Custody Services Centre.

The denial of due process and full access to legal counsel for the passengers of the Komagata Maru parallel the dramatic situation we’re seeing in Canada today – despite attempts to cast the problem into the faraway past.

In 2010, the Canadian government passed the Preventing Human Smugglers From Abusing Canada’s Immigration System Act, drastically changing our asylum system and establishing the practice of indefinite detentions of migrants. In 2013, almost 10,000 people have been put in administrative detention while the state considers their case. The average length of their stay is 25 days, but some are detained for years.

As of November 8 of 2013, 585 people who had unsuccessfully applied for refugee status, or who did not have documentation, were being held in Canadian immigrants cells. Sixty of them had been languishing for more than a year in Canada, a country that is one of the few western states to impose indefinite detentions on migrants.

Today’s migrants are barred because they are considered potential terrorists. The passengers of the Komagata Maru were also opportunistically deemed seditious because many of them were supporters of the militantly pro-independence Ghadar party.

We also see the past being played our in our current changes to the temporary foreign worker system. A statement published yesterday by over one hundred South Asians and advocacy organizations connects the past and present.

“On April 24th, a moratorium was placed on temporary foreign worker jobs in the food sector. Now nearly 50,000 migrant workers are locked into potentially abusive jobs with even less ability to move within the industry. Workers that have paid thousands of dollars to unscrupulous recruiters to get jobs in Canada are also severely impacted. Those working in the food sector are almost entirely racialized, and many of them are South Asian,” the statement reads. “Many organizations are calling for the ban to be extended to all migrant workers. These demands are part of the ongoing legacy of exclusion that the Komagata Maru embodies. Just as the Komagata Maru’s arrival was accompanied by racist trumpeting from governments, and mainstream voices, we see our newspapers today filled with the claim: “Foreigners are taking our jobs”.”

While the temporary foreign worker program is certainly exploitative, the recently-established moratorium is not the solution. Instead of granting permanent residency, the moratorium replays some events from Canada’s history. The supposed protection of Canadian jobs from “foreign workers” is very reminiscent of the way the labour movement over a hundred years ago failed to stand with migrants due to fears of competition from cheaper labour. “[T]he workingmen of Canada are unanimous in protesting against such competition,” wrote Ed Stevenson of the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada in 1906. “Canadian workingmen are not now justly compensated for their major vital part in the creation of national prosperity. Hindoos, by their cost and modes of living, constitute a moral and industrial menace in a predominating [sic] Anglo Saxon community”.

Today, on the centennial of the Komagata Maru reaching the shores of Vancouver, we should pay close attention to how the treatment of migrants in the past is replaying itself in the present.