New Canadian Media
Sunday, 19 March 2017 20:15

Refugees from U.S. are Breaking the Law

Commentary by Surjit Singh Flora in Brampton

For many Sikhs in Canada today, the Komagata Maru incident still looms large in our consciousness.  

For anyone not familiar with this event in our nation’s history, in May 1914 the Komagata Maru sailed from Hong Kong bound for Vancouver, carrying 376 passengers.  Most of the passengers were from the Punjab, India. All were British subjects.  

At that time, Canada had a regulation referred to as “continuous passage” which stated that immigrants must "come from the country of their birth, or citizenship, by a continuous journey and on through tickets purchased before leaving the country of their birth, or citizenship."

The regulation had been brought into force in 1908 to curb Indian immigration to Canada. The passengers on the ship intended to challenge this regulation.  On their arrival, the ship was denied docking privileges, and eventually the ship was escorted out of the harbour by the Canadian military in July 1914 and forced to sail back to India, where 19 of the passengers were killed by gunfire upon disembarking and many others imprisoned.

The Komagata Maru story is an example of what was then the ultimate expression of colonial bigotry, exposing Canada’s deliberate process in controlling immigration by excluding those people the government of the day deemed unfit to enter. These justifications were couched in racist and ethnocentric views of "progress", "civilization", and "suitability" which all were used to support the view that Canada should remain a "White Man's Country".

Greener pastures

In terms of immigration policy, the Canada of today is the complete opposite of still colonial pre-World War I Canada.

Today, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has declared that our borders are open to anyone. But this “openness” is now being tested.  Refugee claimants reacting to U.S. President Donald Trump’s tougher stand on immigration have begun to head north to what they may see as greener, more accepting pastures.  They are now daily crossings at the border, flouting the Canada – U.S. “Safe Third Country Agreement”, under which refugee claimants are required to request refugee protection in the first "safe" country they arrive in.  

In landing in the U.S., but crossing our border as refugees, they are in fact breaking the law and this has become a difficult situation for Prime Minister Trudeau, while simultaneously making many Canadians very uneasy.

Many of us applauded our new government’s efforts to bring Syrian refugees to Canada.  I believe a big part of the general acceptance of this policy was rooted in public perception that the process was well organized, refugee claimants were thoroughly screened and upon arrival the housing, schooling and other necessary supports were well in place.  The latest development is the opposite of organized, with claimants crossing Canada’s porous and largely uncontrolled border with no pre-screening and no homes and sponsors waiting to receive them.

Asylum shopping

Canadians are now watching to see how our government will react to this new refugee situation. If Canada does not exert its sovereignty, honour the Safe Third Country Agreement, and deter these opportunistic attempts at what can only be seen as “shopping for a yes” by claimants, this trickle will become a wave.

Canada is ill prepared for uncontrolled refugee claimants streaming into this country, and I believe the majority of Canadians expect our government to act in Canada’s best interest. This means not merely reacting to claimants crossing our borders, but to act by deterring it.  We are a country that values fair process and the rule of law.  

Today, Canada has a compassionate, principled approach to both immigration and refugees. Our government’s inability to control this developing situation may ultimately do harm to our current refugee system, ultimately causing Canadians to have a lack of faith in the system, and ultimately in the government that is charged with managing it.   

Prime Minister Trudeau will need to step outside of his comfort zone and put in place firm measures to respond to this looming crisis.  At times like these, his usual “sunny ways” approach will have to give way to more firm leadership.  

The Prime Minister is being tested here, and his next move may finally provide Canadians with a true indication of just how fit to lead Justin Trudeau really is. 

Brampton-based Surjit Singh Flora is a veteran journalist and freelance writer. 

Published in Policy

by Samaah Jaffer in Vancouver

Nearly two years after the 100 year anniversary of the Komagata Maru arriving in the Burrard Inlet, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will offer an official apology in the House of Commons on May 18 for Canada’s discriminatory conduct in turning away over 300 potential immigrants.

The Komagata Maru was a chartered Japanese steamship that sailed from Hong Kong to Vancouver with 376 passengers, most being immigrants from the province of Punjab, India. For two months, the ship was not allowed to dock and the passengers were not allowed to disembark.

Eventually, only 24 returning residents were allowed onto Vancouver’s shores. The rest were turned away for failure to arrive in Canada by way of a “continuous passage.” The Continuous Passage Act was passed in 1908 in response to a slow increase of immigration from India, which was referred to as “the Indian invasion” or “the Hindu invasion,” and remained in effect until 1947.

When the Komagata Maru returned to Budge Budge, India, 19 of the passengers were shot to death.

Apologies from the government

In the week leading up to the annual Sikh celebration of Vaisaki — a commemoration of the birth of the Khalsa and the spring harvest — Trudeau announced that he would be offering an official apology for the incident in Parliament on May 18.

"The passengers of the Komagata Maru, like millions of immigrants to Canada since, were seeking refuge, and better lives for their families,” said Trudeau. “With so much to contribute to their new home, they chose Canada and we failed them utterly.”

The Professor Mohan Singh Memorial Foundation, nonpartisan advocacy organization based in British Columbia, has been actively petitioning the federal government for an official apology since 2002.

When the Komagata Maru returned to Budge Budge, India, 19 of the passengers were shot to death.

Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered an apology for the incident in 2008 at a gathering in Surrey, BC. However, many members of the audience immediately expressed that the informal gesture was inadequate. The secretary of state for Multiculturalism and Canadian Identity at the time, Jason Kenny, was accompanying the Prime Minister and stated, "The apology has been given and it won't be repeated."

Vancouver-based activist Manveer Singh believes Harper’s apology “did not deliver justice, as it did not acknowledge the fact that the event happened as a result of the racist attitudes in Canada's federal and provincial legislative houses.”

Significance of the apology

“The significance of this apology is one of closure and one of accountability. There seems to be an idea — a myth — that Canada's formative years were set on concepts of equality and oneness, when the reality is that there was rampant discrimination in place,” explained Singh.

“This apology will be a step towards mending Canada's race relations, because we do still have problems with racism. However, the apology itself is only words if we do not address the racism that still occurs today.”

His sentiments were echoed by Naveen Girn, cultural researcher and digitization specialist of the Komagata Maru Memorial Project at the Simon Fraser University Library, and curator of a number of other commemorative exhibitions around Metro Vancouver. Girn said to the Globe and Mail, “The apology being given in Parliament is a circling back to rectify that original wrong,” referring to the discriminatory laws passed in Parliament.

Manveer Singh believes Harper’s apology “did not deliver justice."

Girn expressed that he hopes Trudeau’s statement addresses the history of wrongdoing against South Asians in Canada, and pointed to the “living legacy” of the Komagata Maru in relation to the lack of security offered for temporary foreign workers today.

Professor of Cinema and Media Arts at York University, Ali Kazimi, believes Prime Minister Trudeau’s apology needs to thoroughly address and recognize Canada’s history of systemic racism, not simply as a “closed chapter.”

Kazimi, who produced “Continuous Journey,” a film about the Komagata Maru, and subsequently authored “Undesirables: White Canada and the Komagata Maru,” told The Star the apology should recognize that “that Canada for the first 100 years of its existence had what was effectively a ‘White Canada’ policy.”

“Trauma and pain are passed down generation to generation,” added Singh, who believes further to the apology, the immediate family members of Komagata Maru survivors should be given reparations.

Commemorating the Komagata Maru

Coinciding with the Prime Minister’s official apology on Wednesday, Carleton University’s Canada-India Centre for Excellence will be hosting the grand opening of the Komagata Maru Exhibition.

Through the depiction of the plight of the passengers, the exhibit attempts to represent “a quest for truth and justice.”

“This apology will be a step towards mending Canada's race relations, because we do still have problems with racism."

On May 23, Girn will be hosting the annual Komagata Anniversary Maru Walking Tour, which enables participants, accompanied historians, artists, and community members, to learn about the incident by visiting historical landmarks in downtown Vancouver.

Simon Fraser University, which developed and launched an interactive digital archive for the one-hundredth anniversary of the Komagata Maru, will also be opening the doors of its Surrey campus to the community for a live webcast of the Prime Minister’s apology.

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

Published in History
Monday, 29 December 2014 08:14

Brown Canada 2020 Summit

by Thamina Jaferi (@ThaminaJaferi

On December 10, 2014, CASSA (Council of Agencies Serving South Asians) organized a conference titled ‘Brown Canada 2020 Summit’ at York University which also coincided with International Human Rights Day.

The summit commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Komagata Maru event of 1914 which saw Canada deny entry to 376 Indians aboard the Komagata Maru ship due to the discriminatory Asian Exclusion Act.

The purpose of the summit was to highlight the gains that South Asian Canadians have made since that event, but also to identify the many current challenges that these communities continue to face in the areas of education, employment, immigration, healthcare, and the criminal justice system. Participants also helped identify the outcomes they would like see for 2020.

Although the Komagata Maru incident has been acknowledged as a condemned racist stain upon Canadian history, the reality is that the same type of discrimination and exclusion towards South Asian and other racialized Canadians exists today.

During the summit, it was emphasized that the terms “South Asian” and “Brown” do not refer to a homogeneous identity and that in addition to being contested concepts, CASSA uses them in an inclusive manner that recognizes the rich ethnic, cultural and spiritual diversity of this community. The summit also considered the intersectionality of South Asian identities, and the layers of hierarchy that impact our understanding of these identities.

Many of the issues identified highlighted the need for South Asian communities to engage in political activism and lobbying in order to hold their elected representatives accountable in serving the needs of their diverse constituents.

Some of the main points that came out of these sessions were:

  • It’s important to have people on school boards that reflect the community’s diverse populations and interests.
  • Schools need to be true “community hubs” that bring social services to local communities, families and children.

  • Many South Asian communities have expressed concern about school curriculums being Eurocentric. There is a need to incorporate and celebrate the histories of South Asian Canadians as well as their contributions to Canadian history. Public school enrollment also seems to be declining due to the appeal of private schools which meet the cultural and faith needs of different South Asian communities.

  • There is a critical need for both students and teachers to see people that look like them in positions of power in order to foster equity and trust in the public school system. This requires examining structural and systemic barriers that prevent South Asian teachers from being hired, retained and promoted.

  • Streaming of South Asian students into career paths that do not account for their potential is unacceptable.

  • The lack of mental health supports for students is a serious concern.

  • There are very real pressures that South Asian communities face in having to “assimilate” into dominant cultures in order to succeed at school, and in the workplace instead of developing their own unique identities and defining success on their own terms.

  • People should collaborate with the labour movement in advocating for better jobs, wages, and career advancement as these issues intersect with many of the barriers South Asian communities face in the workplace. Additionally, unions need to see diversity as a business model otherwise they will not survive.

  • Foreign-born and Canadian-born racialized youth are experiencing high rates of unemployment when compared with the Canadian average, and they have inadequate career guidance which affects their career prospects.

  • Social safety nets are being eroded and the focus of equity champions should be on not losing ground but also on having a shared, collaborative vision for going forward.

Although the Komagata Maru incident has been acknowledged as a condemned racist stain upon Canadian history, the reality is that the same type of discrimination and exclusion towards South Asian and other racialized Canadians exists today. Examples of this include cuts to refugee healthcare, the introduction of highly problematic laws such as Bill S-7 or the “Zero Tolerance for BarbaricCultural Practices Act” which unjustly targets specific cultural and faith communities, and citizenship restrictions, among others.

A big takeaway of this summit was the importance of collaboration and building solidarity amongst different equity-seeking communities facing the same barriers, as there is powerful strength in unity.


Thamina Jaferi, B.A., J.D., is an Associate with Turner Consulting Group with expertise in human rights and workplace discrimination and harassment prevention. You can read Thamina's original blog article here.

Published in National

by Ranjit Bhaskar for New Canadian Media

A leaked document outlining the Liberal party’s plan to help drum up ethnic votes for the party in British Colombia reads like a primer that many Canadian politicians would be tempted to dip into for “quick wins”.

Deeply embarrassed by the disclosure coming weeks before provincial elections, Premier Christy Clark was quick to apologize, saying in a statement that the plan crossed the line over what’s proper and was unacceptable and inappropriate. "The document did not recognize there are lines that cannot be crossed in conducting this outreach, and it is unacceptable. The language in this draft document and some of the recommendations are absolutely inappropriate," the statement read. "As a government, we have a responsibility to reach out to every community to ensure they are engaged and understand the services that are available to them." What was unsaid was the need for such short-sighted moves to engage ethnic voters.

The 17-page document prescribes apologies for historical wrongs ethnic communities as a “quick win” to “improve our chances of winning swing ridings by better engaging supporters from ethnic communities and getting them involved at the riding level”. It specifically mentioned the infamous 1914 Komagata Maru “incident”, which saw a ship carrying passengers from British India being forced to return after a two-month stand-off in Vancouver Harbour. An official federal apology had already been made for the wrong in 2008.

The very focus of political parties on involving ethnic voters at only the riding level is where the problem with regard to their engagement starts. While playing an increasingly positive role toward increasing the electability of visible minorities at the provincial and federal levels, it overlooks the need to start at the lower level of municipalities. Parties see no value in doing so as the current electoral system keeps them away from grass-root politics.

This lack of political engagement has given rise to a consistent pattern of under-representation of ethnic groups at the municipal level where most services aimed at them are delivered. Surveys with visible minority candidates point to a desire for electoral reforms along with other factors affecting their electability.

A recent University of Toronto research into the political and geographic factors contributing to the under-representation of visible minorities in Ontario municipalities suggests the need to explore involving parties among other recommendations. “However, there may be unintended consequences related to the implementation of party systems, and these need to be studied before any solid recommendation is made,” said the researchers, Matthew Smith and Alan Walks, at a panel discussion on their paper organised by Centre of Excellence for Research on Immigration and Settlement (CERIS) that focuses on research into the resettlement and integration of immigrants and refugees in Ontario.

A number of other policy implications emerge from their findings. They include reducing the power of incumbency through term limits, some degree of public financing of candidates, expansion of tax rebates programs for donations to registered candidates, campaign training and mentoring for visible minority candidates, enhanced civic and public education, better media coverage of all candidates, allow permanent resident municipal voting rights as a majority of new immigrants to Canada are visible minorities.

The researchers did point out that “it is crucial that municipal electoral systems be free of structural institutional barriers to visible minority political candidates if Canadian democracy is to remain healthy, open, and inclusive”.  A worthy cause for political parties to take up instead of coming up with boiler-plate ideas on how to swing ethnic votes that are an insult to the very communities they target. -- New Canadian Media

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

Published in National

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The honest truth is there is still reluctance around immigration policy... When we want to talk about immigration and we say we want to bring more immigrants in because it's good for the economy, we still get pushback.

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