On May 23, 1914, the ship Komagata Maru was turned away from a Vancouver harbour when it tried to land. Onboard were 376 South Asian immigrants from British India, veterans of the British Indian Army, who sought to make a life for themselves in the empire they had fought to defend. How wrong they were. Instead of a warm reception, the Komagata Maru was surrounded by Canadian immigration boats half a mile from shore and ordered to leave.
For two months, immigration officers worked to keep the passengers out the country while the ship idled, its passengers adamant that they had a place in Canada. The tense and dramatic standoff escalated into a full-blown battle with a mob riot and an attempted and failed ousting by armed officers. It wasn’t until July 21 when the Royal Canadian Navy arrived in the HMCS Rainbow and trained its guns on the Komagata Maru that its passengers realized that Canada would never be their home. Two days later, exactly two months after its arrival, the Komagata Maru sailed away. 98 years later, the incident has become one of the most infamous displays of racial prejudice in Canadian history.
Why would Canada turn away these South Asian migrants when it had accepted more than 400,000 immigrants the previous year? Why were some of the passengers killed upon their forced return to India? How did this ship pose a threat to the mightiest empire the world had ever known? In the new book Undesirables: White Canada and the Komagata Maru, filmmaker Ali Kazimi addresses these and other provocative questions by piecing together the perspectives of all the players involved: the South Asian migrants, the authorities of the Dominion of Canada, and the imperial officers in Britain and India. At the heart of the story lies the struggle between Canada’s desire to build a homogenous nation of white immigrants–preferably from Britain and northern Europe–and the British empire’s need for stability.