TORONTO — Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized in Parliament on Wednesday for a government decision in 1914 to turn away a ship carrying hundreds of South Asian immigrants.
The Komagata Maru from Hong Kong arrived off Vancouver only to have almost all of its 376 passengers, nearly all of them Sikhs from India, denied entry due to immigration laws at the time.
The passengers were hoping to challenge Canadian immigration law, which refused entry to any Indians who had not arrived in Canada via a continuous journey from the Indian mainland — nearly impossible at the time. The law was seen as a measure to stymie Indian arrivals.
Officials refused to allow the Indians in, even though they were British subjects just like every other Canadian of the time. After 20 passengers who had previously lived in Canada were allowed to disembark, the ship was turned away.
The ship was eventually sent to Calcutta, and least 19 people were killed in a skirmish with British soldiers. Others were jailed.
"Canada's government was, without question, responsible for the laws that prevented these passengers from immigrating peacefully and securely," Trudeau said. "For that, and for every regrettable consequence that followed, we are sorry."
Opposition leaders also apologized. New Democrat leader Thomas Mulcair called it "racism, plain and simple."
A spectator in the public gallery hollered out a Punjabi slogan that signals happiness after Trudeau spoke.
Former prime minister Stephen Harper apologized at an event in British Columbia in 2008, but members of the Sikh community have long said an apology should be offered formally in Parliament. There are more than a million Canadians of South Asian descent.
Trudeau had pledged to make an apology during his election campaign last year.
He noted in Parliament on Wednesday that Canada's current defense minister, Harjit Sajjan, once commanded the reserve regiment that turned back the Komagata Maru and thanked him for helping the Komagata Maru incident get national attention.
"Before entering political life, the minister was the commanding officer of the British Columbia Regiment Duke of Connaught's Own — the same regiment that once forced out the Komagata Maru," Trudeau said to applause. "A century ago, the minister's family might well have been turned away from Canada. Today, the minister sits beside us, here, in this House."
Sajjan tweeted that he was humbled and grateful and he thanked Trudeau.