At What Point Comes "The Past"?
Do we bear, collectively, the responsibility for the historic wrongs of Canada?
How do we weigh the claims of past discrimination by the government and society towards our aboriginals, Chinese migrant labour, Japanese interred in war camps, and Dukabours stripped of their children, among others?
The majority of these less than savory moments occurred long before most of us were born or even lived in this country.
Jack Layton was back in BC this week and called again for an official apology for the Komagata Maru incident. MP Ujjal Dosanjh said that the Liberals would have done it, but they just didn’t get to it during 11 years of majority government.
For background, almost 93 years ago a ship of primarily Sikhs from India attempted to land in Vancouver. Held in the harbour for months, they were finally sent back to India, where there was a skirmish with police and 20 died.
At that time in our history, Canada had “Exclusion Laws”, which made it almost impossible for non-whites to immigrate to Canada – mostly as an effort to protect jobs of white Canadians in factories and lumber mills.
The laws of the time said that Indians had to have $200 to enter BC and must travel non-stop from India – highly unlikely as the average daily wage in India at the time was 10 cents and there was no ship making direct passage that would sell tickets to Indians.
A wealthy Indian businessman, Gurdit Singh, chartered a Japanese boat to make the journey, via Japan, in an attempt to circumvent the unfair laws. It didn’t work.
This scenario just wouldn’t happen today. We have policies in place to assist refugees seeking asylum and we have immigration rules that don’t discriminate on the basis of race.
Given that we have learned from our mistakes, is it necessary to formally apologize for the Komagata Maru or pay redress, as we have done with Chinese head tax survivors?
At some point, we have to close the books on the past and build on our legacy of an open, tolerant nation or risk playing pandering, race-card politics.
Almost any group in Canada can claim some kind of systemic discrimination. Women, for example, couldn’t vote until 1918. Should Canadians of the female gender receive an apology and compensation for this? Frankly, it doesn’t particularly bother me; we’ve learned from history and I can vote and my daughter isn’t in any danger of losing that right before she turns 18.
But in the race for seats in a minority parliament, sometimes politicians grasp for dangerous straws. A country must be about more than just the sins of its past.
Let’s move forward together rather than picking at the wounds of history.