Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Conservative Anti-Immigrant Antics Continue

There was an "apology" announced a few days ago... Anyone recall it? Hear about it? It wasn't like the apology to the Chinese for the "head tax". It wasn't like the apology to interred Ukrainian Canadians (during WW2). It wasn't like the apology to Japanese Canadians. Somewhere a lone messenger from Parliament Hill sneakily spoke to Indian Canadian groups (mostly Sikhs) and indicated there would be an "apology" for the Komagata Maru incident.

For those unfamiliar with this episode in Canadian history: After serving in the British Imperial Indian Army Indian soldiers returning from serving were channeled across Canada to begin their trek to India via the Pacific. These soldiers saw the beauty and potential of Canada and wanted to return. The (Liberal) government of the day had bowed to conservative perception and pressure and caved in to allow for a law which - at the time - prevented anyone from immigrating to Canada, who could not make it with one "continuous journey". This law basically dis-allowed anyone from Africa or South Asia from immigrating to Canada. It was carefully worded, so as not to appear to discriminate, because the Commonwealth was supposed to be "open" to immigration between it's member nations. The law was fought and overturned in court. When this happened, a group of enterprising Indians chartered a Japanese ship - the Komagata Maru - and sailed it laden with Indian passengers, from Hong Kong to Vancouver. By the time the ship arrived in Vancouver, the government had hastily reworded the law to circumvent the court ruling, and sent police/troops to keep the unwanted Indians from landing. Onboard the Komagata Maru, many became sick... some died. Eventually the ship set sail back to India, where - to add further insult to injury - British police beat and imprisoned many of the passengers.

One has to understand the prevailing mood of the country - and of the world - in those days, to understand how this law would have been taken. Conservative opposition members were angered that the law did not go far enough, and that the wording had to be clearly anti-immigrant. They also apparently wanted to go further - against Eastern Europeans, etc. It was difficult for any party to stand up for the rights of immigrants or would be immigrants. Immigration was also a fairly recent concept worldwide - so it wasn't a "worldwide norm" to welcome foreigners with open arms. Societies also tended to fear and ridicule foreigners. This was the case worldwide - not just in Canada. So, while the measures seem draconian, they are looked back upon now the same way that segregated washrooms in the US are looked back on, or how some peoples' views on same-sex marriage may be perceived 80 years from now. Here are the words of the BC Premier of the day:

To admit orientals in large numbers would mean in the end the extinction of the white peoples and we have always in mind the necessity of keeping this a white man's country. -- Sir Richard MacBride, Premier of British Columbia at that time.

Here is an excerpt from a book by noted Indian scholar Kushwant Singh regarding the Komagata Maru incident:

"The leaders of the Keep the Indian Out school were members of the Conservative Party, notably Mr. H.H. Stevens, Member of Parliament for Vancouver, and members of provincial legislature, Messers C.E. Tisdall and Dr. Maguire, and the Mayor of Vancouver, Mr. Baxter. They provided the solid citizen backing to the Immigration Department headed by Mr. Reid, who had equipped himself with special staff to deal with Indian immigrants.

Reid's right hand man was William Hopkinson, who had served in the Punjab police and had a smattering of Punjabi. Hopkinson had in his payroll group of Indians who kept him informed of the immigrant organizations. The chief informer was an ex-soldier, Bela Singh from Hoshiarpur. By virtue of his association with the immigration department Bela Singh was able to influence them to deal with each case individually. For some time before the arrival of Komagata Maru, Bela Singh and Hopkinson had been able to augment their income by charging regular fees to have the applications of the immigrants favourably considered.

In this hostile atmosphere the Indians were persuaded by their Counsel, Mr Bird, to go to a Canadian court and try out the validity of the new Orders in Council. On May 28, a full bench of Supreme Court came to the conclusion that the new Orders of Council effectively barred the courts from interferring with the decisions of the Immigration Department. (In re Munshi Singh No. 20 of 1914 British Columbia Law reports, p243)

The doors of justice was thus finally slammed in the face of the Indians.

The next step was to order the ship out of Canadian waters. The passangers committee took control of the ship from Capt. Yamemoto and his Japanese crew. On July 4th, an armed Canadian police force of 120 men aboard the tugboart, Sea Lion, tried to overpower the passengers committee. Mr Stevens accompanied this force. The passengers kept the policemen at bay fighting with nothing better than rock-coal and staves made out of driftwood floating in the Burrard inlet. The failure of Sea Lion picqued the Canadian police, particularly Mr. Stevens, who used his influence to get the cruiser, Rainbow, and the army brought into operation.

On the night of July 21st, the Rainbow with 150 blue-jackets on board, slipped into the Burrard inlet alongside Komagata Maru. In the morning the helpless passangers woke up to find guns of the warship trained on them from one side and the entire harbor lined with local militia and units of Irish Fusiliers and Seaforth Highlanders on the other."

Societies modernize their values over time. 100 years ago most Christian Canadians would have looked in scorn upon someone who didn't show up at church on a given Sunday... Women were treated as "chattle"... and lynchings occurred openly in the US South - while the KKK roamed the Canadian prairies and actually had input into government policy in Alberta. The most conservative elements of society then - as now - were the most vocally anti-foreigner. Some took it as far as violence. So... the world was a different place back then, and one cannot compare the actions of the government of the day with today's standards. You can, however, request an apology for the actions - especially an honest, heart-felt, and well-explained and vocalized apology coming from the most conservative elements of society - as it was people of their ilk who created the draconian conditions of the past to "conserve" their "lifestyle".

For years South Asian groups have worked on getting an apology from successive Canadian governments. Mulroney didn't care because he had very little South Asian support. Cretien's people probably looked at two factors: 1) South Asians by and large supported the Liberal Party, and 2) They were worried about all apologies due to the worry that after a formal apology (which they wanted to make) the groups would ask for financial reparations as well. We saw that debate occur with the "head tax" issue, and the Ukrainian incarceration matter - as well as the Residential School debate. The biggest hold back was reparations (or potential reparations) in a climate where funds were being slashed from programs (the 90s), while a very populist and anti-immigrant opposition could easily play on people's fears and play up a government cutting programs, while "paying" a minority group for something that happened almost 100 years ago. Mr. Martin's government had very little time to meet with groups from the community - let alone act.

Along come Harper's NeoCons. They have a background of stirring up anti-immigrant hostility. They were known to back the campaign against Sikhs wearing turbans in the RCMP (some openly - like particularly well-known "law-and-order" Calgary MPs). They were guilty of numerous anti-immigrant statements during election campaigns. Jason Kenney - a current Minister - went as far as to comment about "hot-headed" Sikhs "playing the race card" because of his anger at potentially losing control of a nomination battle in Ontario.

The Harper-cons are pretty open about their "courtship" of the "minority vote" (the word "vote" is critical here, as this is all they're after - they don't really believe in any minority issues). Polling has shown Stevie and the boys (and it is mainly "boys") that they need to break into the South and East Asian vote to have a hope of gaining a majority. They need that vote to break into the "cities". They've tried a lot of measures to do so. They have courted community leaders with promises of "grandeur" and "recognition". Some have succumbed. The Cons understand what it means to have a few community leaders in their pocket. They are aware of the networks that extend from that. More recently the Cons have talked up "immigration changes" which are supposed to increase immigration, when they are actually a veiled way to limit family class immigrants and permanent immigrants (because conservatives don't want them), in favor of "temporary workers".

So how does Harper approach this attempt at taking some of the vaunted "minority vote" without angering his "base" (hard-right)? He does it so quietly that no-one notices. It's not an apology - no - it's a bloody insult! What's the purpose of an apology if the entire country doesn't know, and more importantly, does not know WHY? While millions of Canadians know about Japanese interment, hardly anyone knows about the Komagata Maru. That knowledge is part and parcel of any REAL apology. The government's duty is to make the public aware of the grievance, as the origins of the grievance were publicly driven.

And how does Harper present his apology? To add insult to injury, he sends Jason Kenney - yes, the same Jason Kenney of the "hothead Sikhs/race card" comments to quietly convey the message to affected communities. He came out here to Surrey, BC. to meet with Sikh leaders. He also went elsewhere across Canada speaking to small groups of South Asians. No big media blitz. No explanations. Just a quiet, basically hidden apology.

Stephen Harper can keep his apology - or apparent lack of it. When you ask a child to apologize, you ask them to say it with meaning. To apologize and MEAN IT. Also, to recognize WHY they are apologizing. Here we have a government that is apologizing for votes, while forgetting why, and more importantly, destroying any reason "why" by continuing to push policy that is anti-immigration and anti-minority.

What a sham. Mr. Harper, you know where you can stick your apology.

WesternGrit - on behalf of a large and vocal contingent of South Asians from Greater Vancouver.

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