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Rights + Justice

Saying Sorry Isn't Enough

Komagata Maru and the politics of official apologies.

Harsha Walia 22 Aug

Harsha Walia is a Vancouver-based activist and writer. A version of this article originally appeared in the Indo-Canadian Voice.

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Passengers aboard the Komagata Maru.

In the past few weeks, much has been written about Prime Minister Stephen Harpers's so-called apology regarding the Komagata Maru incident, which was delivered at the Gadhri Babian Da Mela (Martyrs Festival) in Surrey on Aug. 3, 2008. Much of the debate has focused around the apology needing to be made in the House of Commons in order for it to be afforded the respect and dignity it deserves. Many South Asian Canadians have expressed that the racist discrimination inherent to the Komagata Maru incident in 1914 is being enacted today in the treatment of the community as second-class citizens who are not considered worthy of a full apology by the Conservative government.

Beyond the fact of where the apology was made, there are other reasons to believe that it was indeed disingenuous. For example, Mr. Harper left the stage prior to hearing the response of the 8,000 people gathered. The Prime Minister's Office pre-screened and approved the thank-you speech that was to be given by organizers of the festival. And Secretary of State Jason Kenney insisted that "the apology has been given and it won't be repeated."

What then, might really be behind the string of recent Conservative government apologies not only to Indo-Canadians, but also for the Japanese-Canadian internment, the Chinese-Canadian head tax, and the residential school system? As an article in The Globe and Mail pointed out last spring, "The motivation and timing behind the announcements are the subject of much debate.... What is clear is that many of those Canadians most affected by these acknowledgments live in some of the most competitive ridings in Canada -- particularly in British Columbia and Central Canada."

Emotion over substance

So if not a genuine apology regarding the Komagata Maru, what was Harper's spectacle intended to do? Government apologies have been politically expedient for the Conservatives as they are cognizant of their emotional appeal to a constituency that is otherwise cautious about voting for them. From their perspective, savvy politicians are acutely aware that these apologies are not intended to further a substantial discourse about the state's responsibility and complicity in perpetuating racist subjugation or to bring about practical change in peoples' daily lived realties.

The aim, in fact, is just the opposite. Through the politics of symbolism, it is a painless way of achieving closure while reinforcing the superficial veneer of Canadian multiculturalism and benevolence.

No doubt, formal acknowledgements from governments of past wrongs are one part of a reconciliation process. However, movements pushing for government apologies rarely further the demands for restitution, reparations, transformation of power, abolition of a repressive system, or solidarity with other communities. Instead they often reinforce (whether intentionally or unintentionally) a "model minority" syndrome by seeking equality and monetary compensation with and from an oppressive and colonial state that continues to marginalize and silence. The state continues to do this by legislating and institutionalizing social discipline and exclusion. By shaping the population's productivity through the power to grant or withhold citizenship. By expropriating indigenous lands and resources. By the project of imperialist occupation and its racist civilizing presumptions. And through the protection of exploitative social and class relations.

And we say thank you?

Such apologies are also a form of political opportunism that seeks our blind loyalty and gratitude for a government that is hypocritically perpetuating similar realities in the present. There is a strong temptation when hearing an apology, particularly for an incident that happened almost 100 years ago, to think that amends have been made and that racism is in the past.

In response to the Harper government's recent apology to indigenous residential school survivors, the Quebec Native Women's Association issued a statement declaring: "In order for this apology to be considered genuine, more efforts must be undertaken to correct current oppressive measures under the Indian Act that prevent indigenous peoples from prospering socially, culturally, politically and economically.... And while we may recognize the Government's admission of guilt, the fact remains that many obstacles must be removed in order to give meaning to the spirit and intent of their apology."

Sid Tan, president of the Chinese Canadian National Council and the B.C. Coalition of Headtax Payers has cautioned: "The historical injustices of the Chinese head tax are being replicated today through Canada's exploitative guest-worker programs and restrictive immigration policies. The descendants of these policies will be demanding apologies in future decades. We should deal with this present reality and not just dwell on the past, especially if a history that we are supposed to have learned from is repeating itself."

Similarly, the Komagata Maru is not a story of one century ago; it is a story about today. News about immigration visa delays and restrictions; daily reports on racial profiling and no-fly lists; escalating workplace raids and deportations; and the Safe Third Country Agreement are the stories of today, happening right now. Ali Kazmi's award-winning film Continuous Journey highlights the clear, yet often suppressed, links between the Continuous Journey Rule of 1908 and the present day Safe Third Country Agreement. This 2004 agreement will not allow (with minor exceptions) asylum-seekers into Canada if they first arrive in the U.S, thus forcing most asylum seekers to make a non-interrupted journey through North America. This has resulted in at least a 40 per cent decrease in refugee applications in Canada.

Returned to face guns

This devastating reality unfortunately will not disappear depending on when, where and how the government apologizes for the Komagata Maru incident. It will only change by our determination and dedication to active struggle against these repressive measures. Measures such as the Harper government's Bill C-50, which will further entrench governmental control and arbitrary power over migration, already negatively impacting immigrants, primarily from South Asia.

On the eve of the formal independence of the South Asian subcontinent from British colonial rule, the sacrifices of the 376 migrants aboard the Komagata Maru must be honoured. These heroes challenged not only the nature of exclusionary immigration laws of Canada, but as leaders or sympathizers of the revolutionary pro-independence Ghadr party, they also understood how their treatment in Canada was related to their status as subjects of the global British Empire. In a little known fact, upon return to Calcutta, India in September 1914, the Komagata Maru was stopped by a British gunboat and the passengers were placed under guard. A riot ensued and the British-Indian police opened fire, killing a significant number of passengers.

The realities of political and economic migration today are similarly contextualized within a system of global apartheid and neo-liberal rule that demarcates the asymmetrical relations between rich and poor, North and South, citizen and subject.

And so as we remember both the legacy of the Komagata Maru and the fictitious yet formal Independence Day anniversaries that are upon us, we can draw some lessons from seemingly disparate histories that span the oceans. It is a moral obligation, a moral duty, on human beings to change unjust social orders and to not be easily blinded by the false expectations -- and in this case, false apologies -- rendered by governments to placate us; to always be vigilant; to never be silent or desensitized in the face of injustice; and always to remember that the legacy of the Komagata Maru teaches us that no human being -- whether our ancestors or our future generations -- deserves less than a full measure of justice and our solidarity.

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