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.