An Imperial Crisis

Vancouver’s 1914 immigration standoff left many lessons unlearned

Around the time of the First World War, imperial unity was a popular theme for graphic artists. They got a good deal of mileage from decorative groupings of representative imperial soldiers, and even more from families of animals (usually lions) bearing the names of parts of the empire. Granted, one soldier was often placed toward the rear and not all the lion cubs were exactly the same size, but in general the message conveyed was unity and equality in a common cause.

But when propaganda gave way to practice, the rhetoric of a united, equal empire was shunted aside. Whatever the symbolism of lion cubs and stalwart soldiers, the empire should be white. The millions who, inconveniently, were not white were quite welcome to be united in that common cause, but they should not hope to be equal partners. That was certainly the feeling in Canada, as the case of the Komagata Maru reveals.

When the ship arrived in Vancouver in May 1914 with nearly 400 prospective immigrants of South Asian ethnicity, it seemed to constitute a test. For the Canadian government and people, it was a test of whether the country would be able to exercise the power to decide, according to its own desires, who would get in and who would be kept out. For the South Asian community in Canada, and for those who wanted to join it, it was a test of the rhetoric of Empire—was it really possible for any British subject, regardless of colour or creed, to settle anywhere in the British Empire? And for the British government, it was a test of whether Canada’s immigration policy would be allowed to threaten the stability of British rule in India, which was showing cracks. After a two-month standoff, the ship was sent packing, its passengers denied entry to Canada on various grounds. For author Ali Kazimi, the episode marked “a transformative moment not just for Canada but also for British India and the British Empire.”

And yet it is difficult to see why. Undesirables: White Canada and the Komagata Maru grew out of Kazimi’s 2004 television documentary “Continuous Journey,” about the Komagata Maru incident, and there is no denying the quality of the product. It is a sumptuous coffee-table book with wonderful illustrations—including many full-colour images from graphic art and documents of the period—and a succinct and fascinating account of the forces, in Canada and British India, that came together in Vancouver in May 1914. The characters are skilfully drawn, and Kazimi shows the documentarian’s deft hand in capturing the emotions on all sides.

But however high was the dudgeon of Canadians at the time, Kazimi fails to make a convincing case that the events in and around Vancouver’s harbour that spring had significant impact on either the country or its immigration policy. Indeed, after his discussion of the recent high-profile cases involving immigrant ships, one is left to wonder if much has really changed. The treatment of the Komagata Maru in 1914 strongly resembles the response to the arrival of nearly 500 Tamil refugee claimants on the Sun Sea in 2010. The Safe Third Country Agreement of 2002 is really just a modern version of the continuous journey regulation of 1908, which stipulated that immigrants had to travel directly from their home country to Canada, not through another country. The book ends abruptly with the Komagata Maru slipping anchor and leaving Vancouver, with most of its hopeful immigrants still aboard, and then plunges directly into an epilogue that races through 90 years of history. There is a very brief sketch of subsequent Canadian immigration policy, but no real effort to explain what effect the episode had in Canada—or, if it had none, why. The overriding impression is that the Komagata Maru had far more impact on British India than it did on Canada.

Perhaps this is fair enough, for the book’s context is imperial and Indian rather than Canadian. After all, it begins in London in 1897, with soldiers from across the Empire parading in honour of the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria before embarking on a fascinating account of British rule in India, and especially the growth and manning of the Indian Army. This context is critical for Kazimi’s story. Among the passengers on the Komagata Maru were more than a few decorated veterans of the Indian Army, who had served the Empire well in battle and who quite reasonably assumed that the ideals so lauded in imperial propaganda would obtain in practice, not just in theory. However, a different perspective might have yielded an alternate frame of reference for understanding the Komagata Maru incident. Before the First World War, the Fenian Raids of the 1860s, when Irish-American patriots (and probably more than a few rabble-rousers) launched a series of small forays across the border, were still a sore point in Canada. That the Irish Republican Brotherhood in the United States should mount attacks on Canadian soil as a tactic to force Britain out of Ireland was regarded as an affront, not only to national sovereignty, but to logic.

In 1914, it would have been easy to construe the Komagata Maru passengers and their backers as latter-day Fenians. Obviously they were immigrants rather than invaders. But from intemperate remarks by some of their more vocal supporters, one could easily get the impression that the main goal of the voyage was not to open Canada to British subjects from India. Rather, it seemed to be part of the campaign to cast off British rule in India, by violence if necessary. There were many connections between the vessel’s backers and the Ghadar Party, which had pledged itself to the armed overthrow of the British Empire and urged soldiers in the Indian Army to mutiny to that end. Indeed, Gurdit Singh, who chartered the Komagata Maru, told Canadian journalists that the issue at stake was “whether we shall have peace in all parts of the British Empire.” While Singh later claimed that he had no interest in violent revolution, a worried observer might have thought otherwise. Many of the men on the Komagata Maru, as ex-soldiers, were targets of Ghadar propaganda, and Singh’s supporters in Vancouver had ties to the Ghadar Party—these facts would have been cause for concern. Had the matter been put to them directly, many Canadians might well have responded to the Komagata Maru in 1914 as they had to the Fenians in 1866: “Your battle is with Britain, not Canada—don’t bring it here.”

Undesirables succeeds admirably as narrative, even if it is not quite convincing as analysis. Kazimi begins the book with the observation that “the full story of the ship’s turning away demands an unflinching examination of both the past and the present.” It is this relationship between the past and the present that is largely missing. That the Komagata Maru episode will seem familiar even to those who have never heard of it may affirm that its long-term impact on Canadian immigration policy was negligible.