An Immigration Battle Won

By Wayne Lutton
Published in The Social Contract
Volume 4, Number 3 (Spring 1994)
Issue theme: "End of the migration epoch?"




by Robert Jarvis

C-FAR (P.O.Box 332,

Rexdale, Ontario M9W 5L3, Canada)

48 pages, $5.00

Too often, past efforts to restrict immigration to the United States, Canada, and Australia have been dismissed as the handiwork of 'nativists' and 'racists.' Researcher Robert Jarvis is writing a new history of the Canadian immigration restriction movement. Instead of hoarding his findings and waiting to issue a magnum opus, he has been releasing his revised history as a series of monographs. The 'Komagata Maru' Incident is the second installment.

The Komagata Maru was a Japanese-owned, Hong Kong-based steamer chartered in March 1914 by Punjabi native Gurdit Singh Sarhali to bring a boatload of East Indians to British Columbia. Singh recruited passengers from among Hong Kong's Indian community. Charging $100 per person, almost twice the standard third-class fare on a commercial passenger liner, 376 men (Sikhs and Hindus, with 25 Moslems) set sail from Yokohama on May 3, 1914 and reached Victoria, British Columbia on May 21.

However, the arrival of the Komagata Maru was met by protesters and the East Indians were not permitted to disembark. Asian immigration had sparked widespread opposition among virtually all segments of British Columbian society. Trade unionists took the lead in forming the Asiatic Exclusion League, which mustered support across the Pacific Northwest, on both sides of the border.

Asian immigration had been seen by big business (exemplified by coal baron Robert Dunsmuir) as a means of increasing profits and undercutting union-led wage and benefits reforms. Trans-Pacific shipping companies, such as the steamer line founded by the Canadian Pacific Railway, promoted heavy Asian immigration, promising potential passengers (most of whom were illiterate peasants who knew little or no English) that they would be welcomed in North America where high wage jobs were awaiting them.

Bowing to popular public demand, on December 8, 1913 the Canadian government issued an order-in-council prohibiting the immigration of all 'artisan or general unskilled labour classes' through all ports of entry in British Columbia. On January 7, 1914, a ban on 'continuous journey' was reenacted. The laws, which continued in effect throughout the First World War, achieved the desired effect of ending Asian immigration.

Gurdit Singh, as well as the Hong Kong government, knew that these laws meant that the Komagata Maru's passengers could not be legally admitted to Canada. Singh intended to mount a court challenge to the orders-in-council and hoped that his charges would be allowed to 'crash the gate.'

Instead, the Victoria Trades & Labour Congress insisted that the Dominion government enforce the laws restricting immigration. Malcolm Reid, head of the B.C. Immigration Department, refused to allow the passengers to disembark and kept the ship anchored off shore to prevent any surreptitious landings. On July 6, 1914, the Court of Appeal unanimously upheld the validity of the steps taken to prevent the landing of the Komagata Maru's passengers. On July 23, 1914, having exhausted all appeals, the ship set sail for the return voyage to the Orient, arriving outside of Calcutta in late September.

But this was not the end of the story. Vancouver's East Indian community swore revenge. At 10 15 a.m. on October 21, 1914, William Hopkinson, an immigration inspector who could interpret Hindi, Punjabi, and Gurukhi, was assassinated at the entrance to the Provincial Courthouse by Mewa Singh. Singh and three other Sikhs were apprehended and Singh was convicted and hanged for the murder the following January.

Today, the terrorist is honored by Canada's expanding Sikh community as a hero and Vancouver Sikhs observe an annual Mewa Singh Martyr Day.

As Paul Fromm observes in his introduction to this monograph, 'The eventual decision by waffling federal authorities to expel the Komagata Maru was a reluctant bow to overwhelming public opinion, that was firmly opposed to changing B.C.'s population. There are lessons here for today, as we see elitist politicians even more eager than their counterparts eighty years ago, to impose a highly unpopular immigration policy on Canadians.'

Addressing the question of the prohibition of Asian immigration by the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, the distinguished British historian Geoffrey Barraclough noted in An Introduction to Contemporary History (Penguin Books, 1964/1982) that population pressures in Asia fueled the desire of millions of people to emigrate to North America and Australia-New Zealand. 'The immediate response of the countries concerned was to erect a ring fence of stringent immigration laws and regulations so framed as to exclude non-Europeans... But for these restrictions,' Professor Barraclough concluded,'it seems almost certain that by that date [the mid-1930s], the population of the western seaboard of North America would have been largely Asiatic.'

Readers in the United States, and elsewhere, will find much of interest in Jarvis' well-written monograph. We look forward to the publication of further chapters in his history of immigration restriction. ;

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