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Thank You Prime Minister Justin Trudeau For Finally Committing To An Official Apology For The Komagata Mau Tragedy

April 11 Was A Great Day For The Entire South Asian Community And May 18 Will Be An Even Greater Day!

By Balwant Sanghera

Thanks to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government that a dark chapter in Canadian history will finally have a closure on May 18. Monday, April 11 was a great day for the entire South Asian community to hear this announcement. At a very well organized Vaisakhi celebration on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Trudeau’s announcement was greeted with cheers, Bole So Nihal and great deal of enthusiasm not only by the attendees there but across this nation from sea to sea to sea. Finally, after 102 years, passengers of the ill- fated ship and their families have been vindicated. It is a commendable move. Justin Trudeau must be applauded for this.

A brief overview of Canada’s rather young history indicates that till the middle of the twentieth century, Canada consisted or at least recognized only two founding people/nations –British and French. For those in power, who were all white, even the Aboriginals, the original inhabitants of the land, had no recognition. Thus, the laws of the land at that time favoured only people of European descent. Not only First Nations, but also people of Japanese, Chinese and South Asian heritage were subjected to discrimination, racism and other atrocities. Each one   of these communities kept up its struggle for better treatment and restoration of its rightful place in the Canadian family. The process that began a few years ago finally will be complete on May 18.

The Aboriginal communities seem to have suffered the most in this regard. Despite being the first settlers, they didn’t have any rights including the right to vote till 1949. As a matter of fact, some of them are still suffering on and off reserves. The situation on some of the reserves is still pathetic. Their experience with the residential schools is still having a severe impact on these communities. However, to their credit, the current federal Liberal government and its predecessor Conservative governments   have done everything within their power  to rectify the situation The apology and compensation to the victims of the residential school abuse as well as other measures are commendable. Similarly, the Chinese community has suffered a lot of discrimination and humiliation since its arrival in Canada more than 150 years ago. Measures like the Head tax were deplorable. The apology by the federal government and the offer to return the Head tax to the survivors or their descendants was a noble gesture.

The Japanese community suffered some of the worst treatments during world war two when every person of Japanese heritage living in BC (mostly in Steveston village of Richmond) was declared an alien. Their fishing boats and other property were confiscated. Not only that, they were interned to the interior of BC.  Rather than being bitter, they started their lives all over and made commendable contribution to communities like New Denver, Kaslo, Salmo, Nelson and Lillooet. The government apology a few years ago finally brought some closure to those who had been put through this ordeal merely because theyor their ancestors  came from a country (Japan) that was at war with Canada.

On a personal note, while serving with the Lillooet School District as an educator and City Councillor (from 1973 t0 1990 ), I came to know fairly well and admire some of the Canadians of Japanese heritage who had decided to stay in and around Lillooet after the end of World War Two. Rather than being bitter, they adopted those communities as their own and became outstanding citizens. One such person was Dr. Masajiro Miyazaki, in late 70s or early eighties. I came to know him very well and respect him. Both of us served to-gether on a number of community organizations in Lillooet.  One story that Dr. Miyazaki told me was unforgettable. He told me that at one point he wanted to buy a house (one of the best in town) but wasn’t allowed to do so. So he bought it in the name of a Caucasian friend of his. After 1949, his friend transferred the title to Dr. Miyazaki. Before passing away he donated that house to the Municipality of Lillooet. Known as Dr. Miyazaki Heritage House, It is still being well used by various community groups.  What a noble gesture!

The South Asian community also had its fair share of racism, discrimination and hardships. Taking away our ancestors’ citizenship and right to vote in 1907 was a big blow to our community. However, our ancestors, rather than giving up, kept fighting for their rights and their rightful place in Canada. Mistreatment and return at gun point of the Komagata Maru Ship with some 356 passengers after two months in the Burrard inlet, on July 23, 1914 was another big setback for our community. The reinstatement of our citizenship and voting rights in 1947 and now the official apology on May 18, 2016 will finally close this sad chapter of our community’s struggle  in Canada . For this, we are thankful to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, his government as well as to all of those people who kept the struggle going.  Since those dark days of 1907 and 1914, our community has come a long way. The wonderful celebration in Ottawa on April 11, the Komagata Maru apology announcement and the respect and appreciation shown to our community has made us all even more proud of this great country of ours. Thanks Justin.

Balwant Sanghera is a retired School Psychologist and Community Activist.

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