Undesirables: White Canada and the Kamagata Maru: by Ali Kazimi – Book Review

In today’s multicultural, inclusive Canada, we have come a long way in telling the true story of our (often checkered) past.  This was not always the case; indeed, for some years, the overt efforts of the Trudeau-era federal government to transform Canada into a model for tolerance and acceptance of newcomers were so successful that many of us started to believe that we had always been like this.  We looked South at the racism and division in American history, and smugly chuckled to ourselves that “we were different.”

But recent historical scholarship has cast a new light on this cherished assumption.  Despite what we like to assume, Canada has had an extensive history of racism and intolerance, both subtle and official, and numerous incidents have now become commonly-known to students, especially here in British Columbia.  One such incident is that of the Komagata Maru, an incident that Ali Kazimi explores in his book Undesirables: White Canada and the Komagata Maru.  In 1914, a ship carrying 376 potential immigrants, mostly Sikh Indians, to Canada was delayed, and then eventually turned away.  As Kazimi explains, this “incident” was not isolated; it was, in fact, part of a larger policy pursued by leaders at the topmost levels of Canada’s government.  They consciously worked to keep Canada “a white man’s country” by excluding non-European immigration by methods such as those employed with the Kamagata Maru: laws were passed to force Asian immigrants to come to Canada on a “continuous voyage,” something that was extremely difficult to do at the time.  Applicants from India had to arrive with at least $200 in their pockets – a handsome sum that few could afford.  Chinese immigrants were charged even more – $500, known as the infamous “Head Tax.”

These cases and their stories are not new to many of us in BC – especially in Vancouver.  But what Kazimi does that few have done up till now is set the Kamagata Maru within a larger “big picture” that illustrates the kind of Canadian society that could have created the conditions for such an occurrence.  Kazimi adopts a panoramic view that reveals how the entire British Empire in the early 20th century – not just Canada but also Australia, South Africa, India – strove to maintain a racial hierarchy, with white at the top and so-called “undesirables” at the bottom.  Our leaders took part in this process willingly; indeed, as Kazimi explains, William Lyon Mackenzie King himself, later to be one of Canada’s most successful Prime Ministers, helped create the legal framework for such discriminatory policies as the Continuous Passage law while working as a young Deputy Minister in Laurier’s government in 1908.  At the same time, the Mayor of Vancouver, Alexander Bethune, openly supported the violent acts of the extremist Asiatic Exclusion League.  Kazimi uses photographs, letters and other primary sources to weave together a narrative that shows just how endemic this xenophobic atmosphere was, and how it was institutionalized in virtually every apparatus of government.

So, while the incidents Kazimi discusses are not a revelation to many British Columbians, his thesis is something that I found compelling and eye-opening.  And we musn’t forget that Kazimi, a resident of Ontario, is also writing for an audience that may not have studied such historical events as the Komagata Maru in school.  Readers in Ontario, or Quebec or New Brunswick, might be genuinely surprised to learn that our present-day, “nice Canada” is a recent phenomenon, and that we do, in fact, have our share of things to be embarrassed about.  For them, this book might be a shock –  but, as a person who believes in knowing what really happened over what I wish had happened, I think that shock will leave us a little bit wiser, and more vigilant that no more Kamagata Marus should ever happen again.

  • Mick

    So what if we turned away illegal immigrants. They think they have a right to be allowed here because they showed up?

  • Mandeep Wirk

    The Komagata Maru passengers were not illegal immigrants – they were subjects of the British Empire in India and Canada was also a part of the British Empire too in 1914 when the ship arrived in Burrard Inlet – they had the right to move anywhere in the British Empire but because of extreme racism prevalent in Canadian society at that time and reflected in Canadian immigration policy, the Indian passengers on the Komagata Maru were seen as undesirables because they were coloured with brown skins. The Canadian government from 1867 to 1967 had a white only immigration policy seeing only white skinned European immigrants as desirable immigrants for Canada. Let me remind you Mick that the original people of Canada are the First Nations people. So Mick if you are not of First Nations heritage your people must have come on a boat or plane from some other part of the world to Canada. Furthermore many of those Indian passengers on the Komagata Maru had served in the British Indian army fighting and shedding their blood for Queen Victoria. Mick you really need to educate yourself on the history of the Komagata Maru incidence. Please read Historian Dr. Hugh Johnston’s book ‘The Voyage of the Komagata Maru: The Sikh Challenge to Canada’s Colour Bar” as well as “Undesirables: White Canada and the Komagata Maru” by Professor Ali Kazimi. MIck you do NOT own Canada like you think you – in fact we are all here in Canada as guests of the First Nations People of Canada who are generous and kind to share their beautiful country with all the rest of us who arrived in boats and planes to Canada. Mandeep Wirk