I rise today to remind you what a great country we live in. Unlike many countries around the world, Canada allows us to have certain freedoms that may not be found in other countries. Here, we are provided with freedom of speech, freedom of independent thought, freedom of religion, freedom of expression and opinion, freedom to travel abroad, and countless other freedoms that we take for granted every day. If we choose to make something of our lives, we can.
We have protected ourselves, through our laws, to allow each and every Canadian citizen and permanent resident to achieve what we aim to do in our lives. Our quality of life and the opportunities available to us here are unparalleled. It is no wonder that people from across the world look to Canada as a place to live, raise a family, invest, start a business, and grow old.
When we look at our immigration system, it is a busy and vibrant government department. It is based on principles of fairness and justice. Minister Jason Kenney must be congratulated on taking hold of one of the most sensitive ministries in our government and making it what it is today.
Each year, our country accepts a quarter of a million immigrants to live here. People fleeing persecution or simply wanting to make a better home for themselves and their families come here. Through our policies, we are shaping the future of our country with people who have brilliant minds and are eager to work. All of these new Canadians can find a home here in our great country.
Sadly, this has not been the case in Canada’s history. This place has not always been the fair and just haven for migrants and refugees that it is today. In the past, certain laws were formed to discriminate against certain people coming into this country.
To recognize these injustices, our government, as soon as we took power in 2006, embarked on a number of initiatives to address the wrongs carried out to various communities throughout our country’s history. One of these misfortunes was the incident of the Komagatu Maru.
In 1914, almost a century ago, there was a Japanese steamship named the Komagatu Maru, carrying 340 Sikhs, 24 Muslims and 12 Hindus. All of these 376 passengers were British subjects from the Punjab state of India. When this ship arrived at the harbour of Vancouver, 356 of the passengers were not allowed to enter the Dominion of Canada. The reason given was that this steamship did not make a continuous journey to Canada, as prescribed by Canadian immigration regulations at the time.
This ship sailed from Hong Kong to Shanghai, China, then to Yokohama, Japan and finally to their destination of Vancouver.
Just a few years earlier, the Canadian government passed an order-in-council that prohibited the immigration of persons who did not come from the country of their birth or citizenship by a continuous journey or through tickets purchased before leaving their country of their birth or nationality.
This ultimately eliminated all ships that began their voyage from India since there was no way that a ship from India to Canada could go without making at least one stop. This exclusionary law was basically designed to keep out immigrants of only Asian origin.
Only 20 of Komagatu Maru’s passengers were allowed to arrive onto Canada’s shores, while all the rest were turned away since the steamship violated the 1908 exclusion laws of not sailing directly from India. The steamship had no choice but to turn back to Asia at the end of July, after being moored for two months on the shores of Canada.
What happened next was tragic. The Komagatu Maru arrived in Calcutta, India, now known as Kolkata, at the end of September, a full six months from their original departure date in Hong Kong. A British gunboat assumed that the ship had political agitators on board since it was turned away from Canada. A skirmish broke out ending in the death of 19 of the passengers with the remainder being arrested, imprisoned or kept under village arrest for the duration of the First World War.
Who knows how history would have played out if we had allowed all these migrants to come ashore? One piece of information that we do know is that presently, the Indo-Canadian community has made an enormous contribution to the building of our nation. The immigration restrictions that were imposed at the turn of the 20th century mark an unfortunate period in our country’s history.
To try to acknowledge and right this wrong, the Conservative government has established a fund for community projects aimed at acknowledging the impact of past wartime measures and immigration restrictions on ethno-cultural communities.
This initiative is called the Community Historical Recognition Program, also known as “CHRP”. This program funds community-based commemorative and educational projects that recognize the experiences of ethno-cultural communities affected by historical wartime measures and immigration restrictions applied in Canada. This program is also focused on promoting communities’ contributions to building this country.
The Community Historical Recognition Program (CHRP) was announced in 2006 and launched in 2008. It provides up to $2.5 million in funding for eligible projects to recognize the Komagata Maru incident.
This program actually has three components to it to acknowledge other wrongs of Canada’s past:
- The first component is a $10 million endowment fund to support initiatives related to the First World War internment experience, for all affected communities. This particular fund is managed by the Ukrainian Canadian Foundation of Taras Shevchenko.
- The second component makes $5 million in grants and contributions available to each of the Italian-Canadian and Chinese-Canadian communities in relation to the Second World War internment and immigration restrictions respectively.
- Under the third component of the CHRP, both grants and contributions funding is available for commemorative projects relating to other wartime measures or immigration restrictions. This not only includes the Komagata Maru incident,but also the M.S. St. Louis incident which affected the Jewish-Canadian communities. Each ethno-cultural community can access up to $2.5 million.
A key element of the CHRP is the establishment of individual Advisory Committees for affected ethno-cultural communities to provide advice to the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, through Citizenship and Immigration Canada officials, on the relative merit of eligible projects.
The Indo-Canadian Advisory Committee (ICAC) met for the first time on June 29, 2009 and as a result of that meeting, the ICAC recommended three projects for funding with Minister Kenney approving them.
Funding was allocated to Grayhound Information Services in Metcalfe, Ontario; Peripheral Visions in Toronto, Ontario; and the Progressive Intercultural Community Services Society in Surrey, BC.
One of the projects, Beyond the Gardens’ Wall: the Asian Immigrant Workers of Tod Inlet by Grayhound Information Services, addressed the immigration restrictions that affected both the Chinese- and the Indo-Canadian communities. It was reviewed and recommended by the Advisory Committees for both of these communities.
On January 19, 2010, a new call for proposals under the CHRP was issued and additional project proposals were being accepted. I am happy to say that to date, 5 more projects had been accepted with a focus on the Komagatu Maru incident. Aside from these projects, it is also important to see how the Conservative government handled this incident publicly.
In May of 2008, the Government of Canada secured passage of a unanimous motion in the House of Commons recognizing the Komagata Maru incident and apologizing to those who were directly affected. On August 3, 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper conveyed that apology to members of the Indo-Canadian community in Surrey, BC.
This historic apology follows on the heels of others made, for past wrongs by the Canadian government, such as the Japanese internment of the Second World War and the Chinese Head tax. It is important that we acknowledge our past wrongs, and never forget the contributions made to our country by immigrants from all across the world. After all, we are a nation of immigrants, with different views on life. That is what makes Canada so unique and dynamic.
Each of us brings a unique contribution to our society. It is because of our differences that we are so strong, so accepting, and so prosperous. Our diversity brings a resilience that helps us weather all storms, the cold, the rain, the snow, and the turbulent economic troubles that threaten our livelihood.
I am proud that our Prime Minister apologized on behalf of the country to those adversely affected by the Komagata Maru incident. I stand behind the Prime Minister in recognizing that the unfair immigration laws of the past held back what may have been some great contributors to our society.
Honourable colleagues, we should never forget our past. By not forgetting, we will hopefully avoid making any future mistakes or misdeeds such as the Komagatu Maru incident.