On Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made an apology that has been a long time coming for many Canadian Sikhs. “Today I rise in this House to offer an apology on behalf of the government of Canada, for our role in the Komagata Maru incident,” Trudeau said in his remarks. The “incident” refers to the experiences of 376 Sikh, Muslim, and Hindu passengers traveling from India on the Komagata Maru steamship in 1914, with the hopes of settling in Canada. When they arrived, the passengers were barred from entry because of a racist and exclusionary immigration policy that prevented migrants who had not made a “continuous journey” to land in Canada. While the law seems innocuous on its face, it was intended to prevent “undesirable,” non-white immigrants from Asia to enter Canadian borders, as it was impossible to make an uninterrupted trip to Canada from places like India. The 376 passengers spent two months on the ship at the Vancouver harbor and were denied food and water until the Canadian military turned them back. When they returned to India, British soldiers killed at least 19 of the passengers, and imprisoned many others.
Of course, racist immigration policies were not limited to Canadian shores at the turn of the 20th century. In America, immigrants from Asia faced restrictions to migration because of national origin quotas, as well as barriers to owning land and becoming naturalized citizens after they arrived. Valarie Kaur, a Sikh-American filmmaker and civil-rights lawyer, recalls her own family’s experiences in California: “My grandfather, Kehar Singh, arrived lawfully by steamship in September 1913, but was incarcerated for three months until he was released on a writ of habeas corpus.” Such government actions and policies fostered xenophobic views among the American public as well. Anti-Asian exclusion leagues were formed to threaten Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, and Indian laborers who worked in lumber mills and on the railroads, leading to events like the shameful riots in Bellingham, Washington, in 1907, when white residents rounded up two hundred South Asian migrant workers and locked them in the basement of the city hall in an effort to drive them out of town.
The United States has been slow to make amends for the anti-immigrant policies that targeted Asian immigrants.
In 2012, under the leadership of Representative Judy Chu (D-CA), both chambers of Congress voted on a resolution that expressed their regrets for “passing six decades of legislation targeting the Chinese people for physical and political exclusion,” beginning with the Chinese Exclusion Act. This public acknowledgment joined the ranks of other apologies that have been made by the federal government, such as the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, in which Congress apologized for the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II and provided $20,000 to each of the 60,000 internees who were still alive; the 1993 apology to Native Hawaiians for the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1893, which acknowledged the “deprivation of the rights of Native Hawaiians to self-determination”; the 1997 apology by President Bill Clinton for the Tuskegee “clinical studies” under which African-American men who had syphilis were left untreated so that researchers could study the progression of the disease; the 2008 Senate and House apologies for the enslavement and subsequent racial segregation of African Americans; and the 2009 House resolution (as part of a Defense Department appropriations bill, ironically) apologizing for the “years of official depredations, ill-conceived policies, and the breaking of covenants by the Federal Government regarding Indian tribes.”