I don’t often do this, but I want to avoid misunderstanding in the community about my recent motion to draft a formal apology around the Komagata Maru incident, and possibly pre-empt my response being used out of context by my correspondent. I received an e-mail from an organization that occasionally spams local government officials with somewhat strident positions on a variety of topics concomitant with their name “Immigration Watch”. I don’t even want to excerpt the e-mail here because there were some pretty hurtful things in it, but I thought it worth sharing the response I sent the author.
Hello Mr. ______.
Thank you for writing to New Westminster Council. As the Councillor who moved the motion requesting the City draft a formal apology, I guess it is on me to correct a few misconceptions you seem to have about the motion.
To start off, no-one from the Sikh community or any other community “demanded that New Westminster City Council apologize to them for the Komagata Maru Incident”.
About a year ago members of the New Westminster community asked Council to consider a memorialization of the Komagata Maru event somewhere in the City**. The City has several similar memorializations of historic events scattered about, including a bust of Simon Fraser memorializing his European discovery of the estuary, memorialization of prominent Labour actions on the waterfront, plaques marking the Great Fire of 1898, the lives of those imprisoned in Woodlands, or the location of the historic Chinatown. We tasked our Museum and Archives staff to research of there was a local connection to the Komagata Maru incident that warranted such a memorialization. We anticipated, I suppose, that members of the South Asian community living in Queensborough at the time may have taken an active role in support of the passengers.
What we found was clear evidence in the written record that the New Westminster City Council in 1914 took a very active role in the incident. Far from being passive observers or advocates for reduced immigration (this was a decade when immigration to the City from European countries was booming), our Council took action to assure not that immigration laws were adhered to, but to “call on the Federal authorities at Ottawa to… if necessary, enact new laws, to effectively deal with the total exclusion of Asiatics from this country”. It was further suggested by our elected officials at the time that “all the ingenuity and courage of the Government would be exercised to keep out Orientals”. It is clear from the correspondence that this was a multi-partisan effort fueled by narrow economic interests supported by notions of white supremacy.
I do want you to note that these actions by our local Council were occurring in a community where there were already significant South Asian and East Asian populations. People from British India, China, and Japan were working on the farms in Queensborough, in the lumber mills along our waterfront, and in commercial enterprises on Columbia Street. They were building our community and raising their families, and were as Canadian as the people serving on City Council, even if they did not enjoy the same rights. Many of their descendants still live in New Westminster.
Hearing these narratives, and in light of the vision for the City outlined in our current Official Community Plan and this Council’s Strategic Plan for the term, which include creating “a welcoming, inclusive, and accepting community that promotes a deep understanding and respect for all cultures”, we recognized that the actions of the previous Council were exclusive and harmful to a voiceless portion of the community. There are many people whose actions I cannot take responsibility for, including the persons of varying faiths on the Komagata Maru, the Government of Canada that created racist immigration policies, or others who may have exploited the situation for personal or political gain at the time. I can, however, speak to the residents of my community with humility and respect, and recognize actions taken by the legislative body I now represent were specifically and intentionally harmful to residents of this community, and may make them feel less welcome in their home. It is for that – the actions of New Westminster Council that knowingly harmed the residents of New Westminster – for which I asked Council to issue a formal apology. I am happy that my Council colleagues unanimously agreed.
Reading your letter, you clearly have strong feelings about a number of issues involving the Sikh community. I hope you can approach these concerns with an open heart and good will towards your fellow Canadians. As an Atheist myself, I sometimes fall into the trap of characterizing an entire faith community through a lens that filters out their individuality or even their humanity. I try hard to see past my filter and recognize people as individuals, and put aside that broad brush. That, to me, is an ideal we should strive for not as Canadians, but as citizens of the world.
** It too late to edit the letter I sent, but I failed to give credit to Councilor Das for the motion she brought forward in late 2019 in response to the calls from the community. We get a lot of correspondence and delegations on a lot of topics, and this may have slipped by us if Chinu hadn’t put the issue into a Council Meeting agenda and motivated us to get staff working on researching the historic ties our community has to the story. Far from the footnote I am adding here, this work by Chinu was the important action that resulted in our memorialization effort, and I don’t want that to go unrecognized.