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Komagata Maru centennial linked to temporary foreign worker controversy

"This half brick was used as a missile by Hindoos on 'Komogata Maru,'" reads the metal plaque affixed to a worn, century-old brick in the Museum of Vancouver's collection.

Its corners busted off, the projectile is the only physical remnant from the detention of 376 Punjabis on board a ship chartered to confront Canada's racist immigration laws which were designed to block Indians from arriving.

The ship arrived on May 23, 1914. One hundred years later, the Lower Mainland is hosting a number of events to commemorate the injustice -- not only the passengers' long imprisonment in the Burrard Inlet and the white supremacist backlash from media and politicians, but also the fact that many were sent back to their deaths at the hands of the British.

Events include a procession to Vancouver's Komagata Maru memorial in Coal Harbour, overlooking where the ship was moored.

A brick that was once seen as proof of a "Hindoo" threat can today be seen as a "symbol of resistance," explains Naveen Girn, project manager for the commemorative Komagata Maru 1914-2014: Generations, Geographies, and Echoes. It's a reminder that many of the passengers detained a century ago went on to become anti-colonial revolutionaries.

"At a distance of 100 years, the symbolism of that brick has changed over the years," he told The Tyee. "Canada hired private militia to take over the ship, but many of the passengers were ex-British soldiers. The brick was thrown by a passenger during a midnight raid."

Although the Komagata Maru's history is more widely known today, Girn hopes that it becomes seen as "a Canadian story, not just a South Asian story that exists in a silo."

But for him and many others of South Asian descent, the racism that shut out the ship's passengers who defied the legislation of their day continues to the present, particularly around Canada's increasingly restrictive immigration and refugee policies.

"There's always been a discourse around who is suitable to be in Canada," he said, "who gets to enter Canada and who doesn't. The Komagata Maru anniversary provides a great opportunity for dialogue."

Girn is one of more than 100 signatories to an open letter released Thursday, organized by the migrant justice organization No One Is Illegal (NOII). The letter draws a clear link between the "continuous journey" legislation being fought by organizers of the Komagata Maru's journey and today's controversy over the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP), for which employment minister Jason Kenney declared a restaurant moratorium this month. But that threw the fate of thousands of temporary workers already here into uncertainty.

"There's obviously a difference in terms of how immigration laws in the past were explicitly race-based -- for example the Chinese head tax and other kinds of regulations that excluded people of 'Asiatic race' or 'negroes,'" says NOII organizer Harsha Walia. "Today, immigration law isn't colour-coded, but the impact is that it affects communities of people … and those impacts have been similar to those of the Komagata Maru, because they've excluded migrants."

As for the TFWP, with fewer and fewer approvals for permanent resident status, Walia cautioned that some rhetoric around protecting Canadian jobs from the program resonates with 1914's successful calls to send the Komagata Maru back.

“We're seeing a call to shut down the [TFWP],” Walia said. “That program is without a doubt a racist and problematic program, but the way to end their exploitation is to allow them to stay in Canada.

“We're calling for migrant workers to be given permanent residency in Canada. Calling to deport them is not the solution.”

Other signatories of the letter include dozens of academics, lawyers, activists, artists and broadcasters.

For Girm, the most important question is not how we look back and remember an injustice of 100 years ago.

“It's too easy to say that racism and discrimination is done with, but we learned from the Komagata Maru that it's a continuous struggle,” he said. “The question is what we do on May 24 after the anniversary takes place -- do we just wait until the 125th anniversary?

“It's important that we find allies to mobilize against racism and discrimination today.”

Events marking the 100th anniversary of the Komagata Maru injustice in Vancouver include a procession from SFU Harbour Centre to the Memorial in Coal Harbour (May 23, 9 a.m.); as well as Komagata Maru 1914 – 2014: Generations, Geographies, and Echoes Memorial Event (May 23, 12:30 p.m., Harbour Green Park); Ruptures in Arrival: Exhibition Tour opening (May 29, 7 p.m., Surrey Art Gallery).

In addition, ongoing exhibits include Unmoored: Vancouver’s Voyage of the Komagata Maru (Museum of Vancouver, ends July 31); Echoes of the Komagata Maru (Surrey Museum, ends July 12); Ruptures in Arrival: Art in the Wake of the Komagata Maru exhibit (Surrey Art Gallery, ends June 15); Komagata Maru: Challenging Injustice display (Vancouver Maritime Museum, ends June 8); and From Tragedy to Triumph: The Voyage of the Komagata Maru (Khalsa Diwan Society, ends July 27).

David P. Ball is staff reporter with The Tyee based in Vancouver. Find him on Twitter here.

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