Vancouver City Council apologizes for Komagata Maru racism


VANCOUVER City Council on Tuesday formally apologized for historical discrimination against 376 passengers travelling on board the Komagata Maru steamship from British India in 1914. Council also declared Sunday, May 23, as the first Komagata Maru Remembrance Day to be marked by the City of Vancouver.

(Raj Singh Toor, Vice President and Spokesperson for the Descendants of the Komagata Maru Society, told the VOICE that the cities of Victoria and New Westminster have also declared May 23 as Komagata Maru Remembrance Day.)

The apology recognized Vancouver City Council’s racism when they supported through resolution rather than denounced the federal government’s racist immigration laws in June 1914, opposing people from India and other Asian countries to enter and live in Canada. Passengers were forced to remain on board for two months without sufficient access to medical aid, food, and water. The ship eventually returned to India, where tragically 19 passengers were shot and killed. Many others were injured or jailed.

“As we mark the 107th anniversary of the arrival of the Komagata Maru, Vancouver City Council and I, on behalf of the City of Vancouver, sincerely apologize for the role the City played in the incident, especially supporting laws that prevented passengers from disembarking,” said Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart. “For this, and all the repercussions that followed, we are truly sorry.”

Mayor Kennedy Stewart read the formal apology at the start of Council meeting. This apology and the City’s official observance are the results of Council’s unanimous decision in June 2020 to recognize the injustices of the Komagata Maru incident.

This week, the City will launch a video telling the story of the Komagata Maru incident through the eyes of passengers’ descendants and their families. The video will be shared via the City’s website and social media channels on Sunday, May 23.

The video will also be screened on the third floor foyer of City Hall each year between May and July, as an educational piece for future school visits and the public.

“We are all richer when we remember how unique it is to have so many different ethnic communities living together,” said Raj Singh Toor. “I hope the apology and video will help to connect Vancouverites, British Columbians and Canadians with their past, and to build a more peaceful, equitable tomorrow.”

On Sunday, City Hall will also be illuminated orange to mark Komagata Maru Remembrance Day.

Staff have been working since fall of 2020 with a volunteer committee, including historians and Descendants of the Komagata Maru Society members, on how to mark this day.

The apology for the City’s role in the Komagata Maru incident is part of a broader ongoing effort to recognize historic discrimination against the South Asian community, which arises from a 2019 Council decision.

One goal of this work is to educate decision-makers and the broader public of the human rights violations against people of South Asian descent, and the ongoing impact and harm of discriminatory laws, regulations, policies, and practices. The City is in the process of hiring a South Asian Redress Planner who will work with the Senior Social Planner for Anti-Racism and Cultural Redress to advance this necessary redress work with South Asian communities.