Alberni's South Asian community to commemorate Komagata Maru incident

City councillor Hira Chopra gazes out at Alberni Harbour and wonders what the fate of those aboard the Komagata Maru would have been if they had landed here instead of Vancouver. - WAWMEESH G. HAMILTON/Alberni Valley News
City councillor Hira Chopra gazes out at Alberni Harbour and wonders what the fate of those aboard the Komagata Maru would have been if they had landed here instead of Vancouver.
— image credit: WAWMEESH G. HAMILTON/Alberni Valley News

Every time Hira Chopra peers at Alberni’s harbour he can’t help but think how one of Canadian history’s darkest moments could have been avoided if the ship Komagata Maru had docked here, at the end of the Alberni Inlet instead of in Vancouver.

Chopra and other Port Alberni residents of South Asian descent are attending a special ceremony on Sunday, May 18 commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Komagata Maru incident.

“We need to remember this so people will respect human rights and make sure something like this never happens again,” Chopra said. “Future governments need to be reminded to respect other people.”

According to a Simon Fraser University website, the Komagata Maru incident happened in the early summer, 1914. The shaip carried 376 Sikh, Muslim and Hindu passengers—mostly men—from British India to Canada via Hong Kong.

The ship dropped anchor in Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet on May 23, 1914, but Canadian immigration authorities refused to allow the passengers to disembark because of the Continuous Passage Act.

The law required all immigrants to arrive on uninterrupted journey from their country of origin. The law was created to curb steadily increasing immigration from India.

The passengers protested that the law didn’t apply to them because India was then a British colony and the passengers therefore British subjects. A two-month stalemate ensued and the passengers weren’t allowed to come ashore.

The ship remained in the harbour but conditions aboard were squalid and food and water was in short supply. The ship sailed back to India but passengers were either shot or jailed when they disembarked.

“I learned about this in school and was shocked at the injustice of it all,” Chopra said.

“It was a disaster and a dark time in our history.”

The whole incident was nearly averted. If a pair of South Asian men hadn’t been thwarted, the ship would have landed in Port Alberni instead, avoiding the inevitable human catastrophe.

Komagara MaruAccording to a 1914 Port Alberni News article, the men, one Sikh and one Muslim from the Lower Mainland discovered that Port Alberni wasn’t a denied port so they travelled there to try re-direct the boat up the Alberni Inlet.

The men first tried unsuccessfully to charter a boat to meet the Komagata Maru and guide it to the island port.

Undaunted, the men travelled to Bamfield to try and communicate with the ship at the wireless station on the coast. Authorities had alerted the station though and the plan failed.

A century later, standing on the shore at Harbour Quay, Chopra reflected on how Canada has changed in more than a century.

Getting into the country isn’t as hard as it was in 1914 but there are challenges, Chopra said. People have equal access to the process but there’s economic discrimination.

“If someone doesn’t have land and money in India then you can’t visit...But if you have land and money you can,” he said. “I don’t think that argument is necessarily applied to people from other countries.”

Canada has come a long way but it has farther to go, Chopra said. “We live in a multicultural society now and those bad, dark days are gone,” he said. “But there’s always room for improvement.”


* The ceremony in Alberni is being held at the Guru Nanak temple, 4144 Eight Avenue and starts at 11 a.m. The public is invited to attend.

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