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Heritage Early 20th Century Canadian Immigration Policy and Asian Immigrants

Discussion in 'History of Sikhism' started by spnadmin, May 27, 2011.

  1. spnadmin

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    BLOG POST about MIGRATION posted on MAY 26, 2011 by SATNAM SINGH


    Early 20th century Canadian immigration policy is marred with racist laws formed to prevent the coming of Asians to British Columbia. The story of Asian immigration is almost as old as British Columbia itself. The first Asians to immigrate to Canada were probably the Chinese in the mid 1800’s. They were lured by the Gold Rush. These new immigrants were followed by more Chinese immigrants who worked on the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Japanese who worked in the Fish Industry. The earliest accounts of the South-Asians are from the city of Golden in British Columbia in the 1890’s. As the Asian population of British Columbia steadily increased so did the racial discrimination against them. In the early 1900’s, it was the Asians who were given the most undesirable jobs. They were often the last to be hired and first to be fired.

    It was around 1903 - during the time of severe anti-Asian sentiment - that the first major wave of South-Asian immigrants came to British Columbia. A vast majority of these men were the Sikhs. Many were former British Soldiers, policemen and others who worked in different parts of the empire. More Sikhs started arriving soon after.

    Between 1905 and 1908 a little over 5000 Sikhs arrived in British Columbia. In the eyes of the British Columbians of the time this was nothing short of an invasion. After all, this was supposed to be a white man’s province and British Columbians were determined to keep it that way. In 1906 the mayor of Vancouver wrote a letter to Ottawa demanding a stop to Asian immigrants. He posted police around the waters of Vancouver with stern instructions to send all Asian new comers to the interior of the province so that they stay out of the sight of locals.

    Far from being impartial, the media played a partisan role adding fuel to the fire of hatred. Major news headlines during this time portrayed the new immigrants as dirty, diseased criminals who were a threat to women and children. Stores would refuse to sell goods to the Sikhs, landlords would not rent houses to them and others simply complained of their very presence. The Sikhs were rounded up and taken to the outskirts of the city where they were forced to live in abandoned buildings. During these trying times no social organizations came to the rescue of the vulnerable new immigrants. It was the Sikhs who had immigrated earlier who helped the newcomers get established.

    Seeing an angry public, the government acted quickly to discourage Asian immigration. In 1904 they imposed a severe head tax on the Chinese which brought Chinese immigration to a stand still. In 1908 they succeeded in implementing the Gentlemen’s agreement with Japan which reduced Japanese immigration from the thousands to a mere 400 per year.

    The question of the Sikhs was a little more difficult. They were British Subjects and by law they had the right to travel freely anywhere in the British Empire of which Canada was a part. To get around this tricky situation the Canadian Government came up with a very mischievous, completely ludicrous and exclusionary new law called the Continuous Passage Law. According to this law potential immigrants had to travel to Canada directly from their native place of birth by continuous passage without stopping on the way.

    The Canadian government had succeeded in stopping South-Asian immigration because there was no steam ship company that operated a direct route from India to Canada at that time.This new law devastated the Sikh community in British Columbia. With the implementation of such racist laws, many did not see a promising future in Canada. The Sikh population of British Columbia was reduced to less than 2000 in a couple of years.

    Fast forward to 1914. A Sikh businessman named Gurdit Singh decided to challenge the Continuous Passage law. As loyal British subjects Gurdit Singh believed he and his country men had every legal right to enter Canada which at the time was a part of the British Empire. He chartered a ship called the Komagata Maru and set sail from Hong Kong on April 4, 1914.

    The Komagata Maru Ship carrying 376 South Asian immigrants reached the Shores of Burrard Inlet in Vancouver seven weeks later on May 23rd, 1914. The news of the coming of the “Orientals” was published in local newspapers in a very negative fashion.

    The Premier of British Columbia, Sir. Richard McBride, reacted sharply. He stated : “To admit Orientals [in British Columbia] in large numbers would mean in the end the extinction of the white people, and we always have in mind the necessity of keeping this a white man’s country” The newcomers were greeted by angry and hostile mobs who had lined up in the thousands to see the Komagata Maru.

    The press, the politicians and the public all agreed that the passengers should be sent back to their own land. This mutual agreement of key stakeholders was fueled by the common fear that if the passengers were allowed to land, it would open the gates to thousands more. This – of course - would be detrimental to Canada’s future as a white man’s country. The anti-Asian sentiment was so high that many feared a repeat of the anti-Asian riots of 1907; only this time they would be more violent.

    The local Sikhs under the aegis of the Khalsa Diwan Society, held a meeting to discuss the matter. The congregation vowed to support their brethren on board the Komagata Maru. They raised a sum of $60,000 and hired a lawyer named Edward J. Bird to present their case before the board of enquiry. As the days and weeks dragged on, the conditions on board were allowed to rapidly deteriorate into a very filthy and uninhabitable state. The passengers were made to starve on board during several occasions as their appeals for food and water fell on deaf ears. No one was allowed on or off the ship, not even the lawyer for the passengers. An immigration launch with armed guards was circling the ship day and night.

    Near the end of June, the immigration board of enquiry had made its decision. The passengers on board the Komagata Maru would not be allowed to land in Canada. The appeals court held that it did not have jurisdiction over decisions made by a board of enquiry.

    The objective of the Canadian government had been achieved. The Sikhs and all natives of South-Asia were effectively banned from entering Canada. On July 23rd, 1914, two months after she had come to the shores of Vancouver – bringing with her the hopes and aspirations of 376 South-Asians - the Komagata Maru was escorted out of Canadian waters under trained guns of the Navy Cruiser, the Rainbow. It’s ironic that a Navy Cruiser built to safeguard the integrity of the British Empire was used to enforce the racist and exclusionary continuous passage law against its own loyal subjects denying them their fundamental right to travel freely within that empire.

    Upon reaching Calcutta (India), the passengers planned to place the sacred Guru Granth Sahib (the holy scripture of the Sikhs) at a local Sikh temple in Calcutta and stay there in search of employment. The British authorities had decided to send all the passengers back to Punjab. A dispute erupted between the passengers and the British Police. Arms were taken out and the British police resorted to indiscriminate firing. Eighteen Sikhs and three police personnel were killed. Had it not been for the racist and exclusionary Canadian immigration policy, innocent lives would not have been lost.

    http://vancouver.mediacoop.ca/newsrelease/7354
     
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