True Both to History, and to Solidarity

By Hugh Johnston, Ali Kazimi and Anne Murphy
Immigration Officer keeps watch from the Sea Lion (Photo: Library and Archives Canada).
Immigration Officer keeps watch from the Sea Lion (Photo: Library and Archives Canada).

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Editor's Note: This article is a part of the Komagata Maru: Pasts, Presents and Futures Initiative in Rungh.

This year that has passed has been, and that which has begun promises to continue to be, marked by protest. The recent failure, again, of talks between protesting farmers and the central government in India, means a continuation of the state’s brutal treatment of the farmers, and continuing efforts to stop the profound changes to the agricultural sector sought by the government of India.

Bal Dhillon's recent article in The Tyee, "India’s Farmer Movement, Indigenous Land Defenders and Hidden Histories" makes parallels between the farmers' movement and the fight for Indigenous rights in Canada. It is in many ways right on target: the histories of Canada and India are deeply linked in the history of the British Empire, and the status of land and its distribution is fundamentally linked through that history. Histories of expropriation, and of land allocation to loyal elites, undergird both of these histories.

It is crucial, however, that we adhere to the complexities of the histories that we mobilize here. Not to do so risks disrespect for the important differences, as well as commonalities, among them.

This is painfully visible in the mural that Dhillon refers to in his article. The mural “Taike-Sye’yə,” was curated by Naveen Girn, and created by Keerat Kaur and Alicia Point (Musqueam, Stó:lō, Kwantlen), and commissioned by the Vancouver Mural Festival. It occupies 4000 square feet on the sides of a federal building, from which the name of politician H. H. Stevens (1878-1973) was ceremoniously removed in 2019. The mural portrays an until-then unknown story that Musqueam paddlers took supplies to the would-be immigrants on board the Komagata Maru, which Dhillon calls a "little-known shared history" and “a history that won’t be found in official records.”

The problem is this: this new story has now entered the public record, and is being accepted as true, without support by the evidence. A part of Canadian history has been changed without verification; this fact in itself must be a cause for concern for all of us.

Ex-policeman recruited by the immigration authorities
Ex-policeman recruited by the immigration authorities, supplied with rifles from the local militia and put aboard a tug, the Sea Lion, to provide round the clock watch on the Komagata Maru. Let alone journalists, even the lawyer for the passengers was denied access. Photo: Vancouver Public Library.
There are two aspects of the multiple claims made through this project that are the most troubling, and we focus on these here. Firstly, it is claimed now as fact that Indigenous people helped the passengers on the Komagata Maru in their two month-long period of detention in Vancouver harbour. Immigration officials in an unprecedented move had not allowed the passengers to disembark, and the processing of the would-be immigrants that would have taken minutes on shore was stretched out for days on the ship. Caught in this deliberate bureaucratic slow down the passengers often found themselves at the edge of starvation. A letter from the passengers to their lawyer, J.E. Bird, on the 9th of July 1914, for example, notes “We are suffering much from hunger & thirst.” The “Shore Committee,” comprised of members of the local South Asian community, did organize provisions for the Komagata Maru and did get assistance in delivering these supplies at times, mostly from Japanese Canadian fishermen because White Canadian fishermen denied them help.
Letter from the passengers of the Komagata Maru to their lawyer J. Edward Bird
Letter from the passengers of the Komagata Maru to their lawyer J. Edward Bird (Library and Archives Canada).

There is, however, no record of any Indigenous participation in the delivery of provisions to the Komagata Maru in the extensive primary archival materials that document it: immigration department records, detailed British surveillance reports, newspaper accounts, the memoirs of the lawyer for the passengers Edward Bird, and the biography of the man who chartered the Komagata Maru, Gurdit Singh. The ship was heavily guarded and controlled after the first few days of its two-month-long stay. If Indigenous paddlers took supplies to the ship, how did they get past the armed blockade? If the passengers received supplies from their Indigenous supporters, then why did they continue to make claims of thirst and starvation? Both the original News Releases, municipal and federal, for the mural, claim the paddlers were Musqueam. Geographically, it is a paddling distance of about 22 Km from the Musqueam reserve to where the Komagata Maru was forced to anchor. On the other hand, there are two Squamish reserves along the shores of North Vancouver, both about 3 kilometers away from the Komagata Maru’s anchorage.

This is where a scholarly eye is necessary. Oral histories that emerge after a century need to be balanced by reference to other sources. These stories have not circulated for long, and that is striking because the arrival and subsequent turning away of the Komagata Maru is part of a highly scrutinized part of modern Canadian history, particularly in the last two decades. The centenary of the Komagata Maru's arrival and departure was marked in 2014 with diverse events across the lower mainland; no stories of this kind emerged in that period. This suggests the need for care.

Sonny Assu's Welcoming Those They Did Not Want (2017) was created in recognition of those that the colonial state of Canada turned away. It was on display at All India Sweets on Main Street in Vancouver in 2017, as a part of the Trauma, Memory, and the Story of Canada exhibition curated by Raghavendra Rao K.V. organized by the now defunct South Asian Canadian Histories Association in honour of Canada 150+. At that time, no stories of direct Indigenous assistance to the passengers of the Komagata Maru had emerged.

Secondly, the project embraces a kinship term in Punjabi, “Taike,” that means “from the family of the father’s elder brother.” This term was used in BC by Punjabis for Indigenous People and is being understood by the project as signifying cordial relations between Indigenous people and South Asians. Unfortunately, this is a complete misrepresentation of the term. As Kamala Nayar noted in her 2012 book The Punjabis in British Columbia: Location, Labour, First Nations, and Multiculturalism, “from the 1960s through to the early 1990s, Punjabis began to attach the negative stereotypes of First Nations people to the word taike and used it in a derogatory manner when communicating among themselves.” (pg. 183). According to one of her narrators: “Taike is used in a looking-down way. The Punjabis say it because then others will not understand who they are referring to.” (Ibid., 187). Nayar’s book details poignantly the complexity of relationships in northern British Columbia between Indigenous people and Punjabis, the latter of whom occupied a complicated position as settlers and simultaneously as people who were subject to discrimination themselves. It is a book worth reading. This is not a simple issue.

The complexities of both of these historical issues have been lost in the Vancouver Mural Festival mural, and the discussion around it that has emerged. To be clear, we have no issues with the artistic merits of the mural; the young artists clearly rose to the occasion and have displayed remarkable creativity and mastery of their craft in creating this public art work. The problem runs deeper. The "Project Brief" for the mural, which was provided to us by the Mural Festival, reveals that the proposal received approval and financing, and was executed, in just over four weeks. Two federal cabinet ministers, Carla Qualtrough and Harjit Sajjan, flew to Vancouver to inaugurate the mural, and the Un-Naming media event received widespread national attention.


Project Brief – Vancouver Mural Festival July 2019

When asked who had verified the story of Indigenous assistance to the passengers on the Komagata Maru, Media Relations Officer Michèle La Rose of Minister Carla Qualtrough’s office put the responsibility on the shoulders of the two emerging artists, stating by email that they had “consulted historians who verified through their research, which included oral history, that Indigenous people helped the passengers who were on board the Komagata Maru ship in 1914. These historians stated the Indigenous people delivered food and water to the passengers on the ship.”
Komagata Maru Mural Project - Taike-sye’yə
Komagata Maru Mural Project - Taike-sye’yə
Komagata Maru Mural Project - Taike-sye’yə
Komagata Maru Mural Project - Taike-sye’yə
Komagata Maru Mural Project - Taike-sye’yə
Komagata Maru Mural Project - Taike-sye’yə
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Taike-sye’yə. Komagata Maru Mural Project. Artists: Keerat Kaur, Alicia Point (Musqueam, Stó:lō, Kwantlen) , Cyler Sparrow-Point (Musqueam). Source: Vancouver Mural Festival.

Two of the authors of this article undertook separate email exchanges with Adrian Sinclair, the Festival’s Director of Engagement, regarding the facts claimed in relation to the Mural; one of us also contacted the City of Vancouver (in addition to Minister Qualtrough's office). The City of Vancouver deferred to the Mural Festival and since then the link to its page for the News Release announcing the mural no longer works. The online documentation related to the mural on the Mural Festival site (and community blog) was changed to delete entirely the claim regarding Indigenous assistance to the Komagata Maru and to recognize that there are negative connotations of the term "Taike," although the complexity of the term is not presented. In fact, only the Federal press release regarding the un-naming of the building, and the mural commissioned for its back exterior, retains the claim about Indigenous paddler assistance.

Despite the fact that the City of Vancouver and Mural Festival no longer publicly support the story, it continues to circulate widely online regardless, as the recent article in the Tyee demonstrates. When we approached the Tyee with this article, they chose not to print it, and are conducting their own investigation into our 'assertions the events depicted in the mural did not take place'." When we asked, what citations were by Bal Dhillon, the magazine noted that they had "assumed the truth of the story was a given" given that online media had covered it without question. Their response confirmed our fears that even credible news outlets had accepted earlier news stories, which in turn had quoted from the news release. This, it seems, is the power of a news release. To its credit, however, The Tyee immediately flagged Bal Dhillon’s piece online with an Editor’s note: "Some of the facts in this story have been questioned by historians. The Tyee has assigned a reporter to follow up and we will publish a new story with our findings as soon as our reporting has concluded."

The outcome of this investigation cannot replace a scholarly examination of the context and archival record, as we demonstrate below. This shows the unlikelihood that such an event took place.

It became clear in our exchanges in 2019 with the Mural Festival that individuals with training in historical method (including oral history) and knowledge of the relevant archives were not consulted for this project. The accounts upon which this "hidden history" relies, according to an email sent by the curator of the mural project as a part of conversations with the Mural Festival, hail from the South Asian community, not from Indigenous history keepers. When contacted directly, one of the alleged sources of evidence for this new history, poet Nadeem Parmar (who categorically denied that he is a historian, as claimed by the Mural Festival), explained that he had related an account from Giani Kesar Singh, who had self-published a book on this history, that some of the passengers had told him that Native Canadians had come to the Komagata Maru in small boats to sell fish and other goods to the passengers, and the passengers in turn had offered money to be taken to shore. No mention was made of canoes.

In contrast with the logical issues that emerge in the story as originally presented by the Mural Festival, some of the specifics of this, the actual account of Kesar Singh, make sense with what is already known: by the twentieth century Indigenous families had expanded their traditional fishing practices and were using small boats. Recent scholarship on the Musqueam and the Squamish corroborates this fact, as well as Indigenous involvement in commercial fishing overall. Photographic evidence from the Vancouver Public Library documents the kind of small craft used by them. Here again the story rings true and is corroborated by other sources.

The evidence here is not definitive, but we can entertain hypotheses based on them. If we take seriously the visual record Ali Kazimi has examined in depth--the photographic and moving image evidence available from that time--it is entirely possible that some Indigenous fishers approached the ship within shouting distance during the last three days before the Komagata Maru’s eventual departure; armed immigration patrols were replaced by the Canadian Navy ship, HMCS Rainbow, which anchored within firing distance from the ship. Small craft carrying curious onlooker crowded the waters to see the spectacle, documented accounts are backed by still and moving images. In this account, Indigenous fisherman had fish to sell, and in that year (as usual) salmon fishing peaked in June and July. This helps us place this possible interaction in time. On the other hand, if we see the written evidence as primary, in corroborating the story, there is no evidence available in its favour. Based on his reading of the extensive documentation available on the Komagata Maru in the final days of its presence in the waters off Vancouver, Hugh Johnston argues that that even this possible event could not have happened. Neither one of these, it must be noted, corresponds to the representation of the interaction in the Mural Festival's original materials, the "hidden history" that has now been accepted as true.

What this discussion of Kesar Singh’s evidence shows us is that oral histories do intersect with other sources, other forms of knowledge. They provide a valuable historical source. But they need to be treated with care, and with respect for the evidence as a whole. Reading these diverse sources together is crucial.

In his article, Dhillon is careful to note that his "is not an attempt to create a false equivalency between the two struggles." And he is right. There is no need to, and there is no need to "find" new "facts." There is a powerful history of resistance to the British crown, and colonialism, that we can embrace from the complex histories of India and Canada.

But we must pay attention to historical evidence as we do so. If the way in which oral evidence relates to the existing factual record does not matter, if research and scholarship are irrelevant, then we have arrived at a time in Canada when any purportedly historical narrative can become "true." The quest for the truth is directly linked to the quest for social justice. Let us not disregard it. Solidarity must be grounded in both.

Hugh Johnston is a professor emeritus of history at SFU, where he taught for 36 years. His seminal book The Voyage of the Komagata Maru: The Sikh Challenge to Canada's Colour Bar (1979) was revised and republished in 2014.
Ali Kazimi is Associate Professor in the Department of Cinema & Media Arts at York University. His award-winning film Continuous Journey (2004) and his critically acclaimed book Undesirables: White Canada & the Komagata Maru (2011) have played a vital role in bringing this history to light. He is a 2019 recipient of the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts.
Anne Murphy is Associate Professor in the Department of Asian Studies, and is joining the Department of History. She is founder (in 2019) and Lead of the Interdisciplinary Histories Research Cluster at UBC.