On May 23, 1914, a steamship arrived in Vancouver carrying 376 passengers who had hopes for a new life in Canada. After a long journey from India, the majority of the passengers – who were of Sikh, Muslim, and Hindu origin – were denied entry into Canada due to the laws in existence at the time.
On Wednesday, Trudeau delivered a formal apology in front of descendants of those directly affected by the incident. He emphasized that Canada’s rich diversity is a source of strength for our country and reaffirmed the government’s commitment to upholding the values – including multiculturalism – enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Trudeau said: “Today – while knowing that no words can fully erase the pain and suffering experienced by the passengers – I offer a sincere apology on behalf of the government for the laws in force at the time that allowed Canada to be indifferent to the plight of the passengers of the Komagata Maru.”
He added: “The Komagata Maru incident is a stain on Canada’s past. But the history of our country is one in which we constantly challenge ourselves, and each other, to extend our personal definitions of who is a Canadian. We have learned, and will continue to learn, from the mistakes of our past. We must make sure to never repeat them.”
Addressing the descendants of the Komagata Maru passengers, Trudeau said: “We can never know what your lives would have been like had your relatives been welcome to Canada, the ways in which your lives would have been different, the ways in which Canada would have been enriched. Those possibilities are lost to history, for that, and to you, we apologize.”
TRUDEAU, towards the end of his address, said: “Mr. Speaker, before I finish I would like to acknowledge one more member who has helped to bring the Komagata Maru incident to our national attention, our Minister of National Defence [Harjit Sajjan]. In an interesting historical note, before entering political life, the minister was the commanding officer of the British Columbia Regiment (Duke of Connaught’s Own) – the very same regiment that once forced out the Komagata Maru. A century ago, the minister’s family might well have been turned away from Canada. Today, the minister is an essential member of this government and sits here in this House.”
That was greeted by a standing ovation by all MPs.
Trudeau then continued: “It’s in this House, in a House that includes immigrants, that includes the daughters and sons and granddaughters and grandsons of immigrants, the very makeup of this House should remind us all that when we have the choice between opening our arms to those in need or closing our hearts to them, we must always choose the more compassionate path. When we see injustice, we must speak up and attempt to make things right. When we make mistakes, we must apologize and recommit ourselves to doing better.”
He concluded: “Mr. Speaker Canada is a country unlike any other. We are all blessed to call it home. Let us always endeavour to do better and to be better. Let us do that in honour of the victims of the Komagata Maru incident and in honour of every courageous person who leaves behind family and familiar things to bring to Canada the very best of who they are.”
Just after the thunderous applause that greeted Trudeau’s apology was dying down, someone in the visitor’s gallery shouted out the Sikh slogan or ‘jakara’ “Bole So Nihal” that met with the response “Sat Sri Akal.”
(“Bole So Nihal … Sat Sri Akal”: “Aside from being a popular mode of expressing ebullient religious fervour or a mood of joy and celebration, it is an integral part of Sikh liturgy and is shouted at the end of ardas or prayer and said in sangat or holy congregation,” according to Wikipedia).