Exhibits explore human rights legacy of ship turned away from Canada
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) is working with the Sikh Heritage Museum of Canada to give national prominence to the tragic story of the Komagata Maru. In 1914, the ship arrived in Vancouver harbour carrying 376 passengers of Indian descent, who were not allowed to land because of Canadian laws designed to discourage non-European immigration. After two months aboard ship in appalling conditions, they were forced to return to India where, in a subsequent clash with British soldiers, 19 passengers died.
Tonight, the CMHR hosts a travelling exhibit and lecture about the incident called "Lions of the Sea", developed by the Mississauga-based Sikh Heritage Museum with support from the Government of Canada, which has recognized the importance of telling this story. More information can be found online.
The Komagata Maru is also permanently featured in the CMHR as the subject of a short film that plays on a massive digital canvas in the Canadian Journeys gallery.
"This powerful story underscores the importance of treating all humans with dignity and respect," said CMHR president and CEO Stuart Murray. "We are honoured to partner with the Sikh Heritage Museum of Canada to encourage thought and conversation about issues that remain relevant today."
Suffering hunger and thirst in crowded conditions, passengers aboard the former coal ship Komagata Maru – all British subjects and mostly Sikhs – were stranded on board for two months while legal battles ensued over Canada's discriminatory immigration laws of 1914. Under the "Continuous Journey" regulation, immigrants travelling to Canada by ship were required to purchase a ticket for a direct route with no stopovers which, at the time, was impossible for those travelling from Asia.
When the passengers' case was lost, the ship and its angry occupants were ordered away at Navy gunpoint. After two more months at sea, they arrived in Calcutta, where the passengers were deemed dangerous political agitators and ordered to board a train for the Punjab. Many resisted, resulting in a conflict that left 19 passengers dead, with most of the rest imprisoned for the duration of the First World War.
It was not until the late 1940s that the Canadian government removed immigration restrictions for South Asians. Yet they remained disadvantaged under immigrant selection criteria until 1967, with the introduction of a points-based system.
Pardeep Singh Nagra, executive director of the Sikh Heritage Museum of Canada, said the inclusion of this important story in Canada's new national museum in Winnipeg supports their own efforts for ongoing human rights education and awareness. "We hope visitors and students from Canada and around the world can learn new lessons from an old ship," he said. "Its legacy inspires us to continually strive for inclusion, acceptance, and human rights for all."
Nagra has devoted much of his life to overcoming barriers of discrimination. As an amateur boxer in Canada, he launched and won a legal battle in 2000 after being barred from fighting at the national championships because he refused to shave his beard for religious reasons. Besides his work with the Sikh Heritage Museum – including travelling the nation this year to present the exhibit and story of the Komagata Maru – Nagra also heads the Community Engagement Council for the Toronto 2015 Pan Am Games and manages the Employment Equity Office at the Toronto District School Board.
The Sikh Heritage Museum of Canada is dedicated to advancing and promoting knowledge, understanding and preservation of the cultural and religious life of Sikh people. It celebrates the Canadian Sikh experience and its vibrant history, explores the richness and complexity of Sikh spirituality and identity, and commemorates Sikh history. The Museum is committed to building a strong and diverse community that promotes harmony, friendship and understanding.
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is the first museum in the world solely dedicated to the evolution, celebration and future of human rights. It is the first national museum in Canada to be built outside the National Capital Region. Using immersive multi-media technology and other innovative approaches, the Museum will create inspiring encounters with human rights as part of a visitor experience unlike any other.
Pardeep Singh Nagra
Sikh Heritage Museum of Canada