Canada’s immigration policy has been routinely characterised as open and welcoming since the election of Justin Trudeau, with plans to increase the country’s annual intake of immigrants and refugees being set in motion. The prime minister tweeted two years ago: ‘To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada.’ In January of this year, he said in reaction to an Islamophobic comment by a participant at a ‘town hall’ meeting that ‘Canada is a country that was built by immigrants’.
Remnants of a less welcoming past still haunt the country however, evidenced by several controversial memorial sites. Last week, plans to remove the name of the Harry Stevens building located at 125 East 10th Avenue in Vancouver were announced by the minister of public services Carla Qualtrough and Harjit S Sajjan, the minister of national defence and member of parliament for Vancouver South. The building will now be recognised simply by its street address.
The decision reflects an ever-evolving consciousness of the country’s Imperial history. Henry Herbert (Harry) Stevens was elected as the Conservative MP for Vancouver City in 1911. Known for being a firm defendant of anti-Indian immigration laws and white supremacist views, he was politically active until 1942. In 1914, 376 Punjabi passengers, the majority being Sikhs, set sail for British Columbia on the Komagata Maru with the hope that they would be granted entry as fellow citizens of the British Empire despite barriers put in place by Canadian authorities to inhibit South Asian immigration. They were instead met with hostility and forced to stay onboard for two months, suffering ill treatment and malnourishment while government officials decided their fate. A handful of passengers were eventually admitted while the rest were made to head back to Kolkata.
A report from the Canadian Museum of Human Rights highlights that upon their return to India, British authorities were concerned those onboard were anti-British and pro-independence revolutionaries. During attempts by authorities to exert control, 19 were fatally shot while the rest were imprisoned. The incident has come to be symbolic of the treatment Indian citizens suffered at the hands of the Raj, as well as being indicative of the strong preferences for white immigrants across the Commonwealth at the height of Empire.
Stevens was named as perhaps the key figure behind the push to drive the immigration seekers away from Vancouver and back to the tragic culmination in India. It is claimed that alongside Malcom Reid and Charles William Hopkinson, Stevens was actively opposed to the settlement of the Indian passengers and his indignation that they should be denied entry is what eventually returned them to Kolkata. In Pamela Hickman’s book, ‘Righting Canada’s Wrongs: The Komagata Maru and Canada's Anti-Indian Immigration Policies in the Twentieth Century’ it states that at he said: ‘we cannot hope to preserve the national type if we allow Asiatics to enter Canada in any numbers.’
At the name-changing ceremony on 9 August, Sajjan stated that: ‘Today is about acknowledging our history, learning from it and vowing to never let the wrongs of the past happen again. The Komagata Maru incident was a tragedy in the truest sense of the word. Canada is a different nation today, but we can never forget what happened here, so we can learn from it and ensure it never happens again.’
Justin Trudeau issued a formal apology on behalf of the government in 2016, 102 years after the incident. Reuben Rose-Redwood, an associate professor of social and cultural geography at the University of Victoria told Geographical: ‘In recent years, debates over place renaming and statue removal have become major flashpoints of social and political conflict. Commemorative naming is a way to honour particular individuals by literally giving them a “place” in the cultural landscape. However, as a society’s values change, who it chooses to honour also changes, resulting in transformations of the commemorative landscape.’
Acts of renaming particular sites have been recognised as a way of fostering wider cultural inclusion. As Rose-Redwood says: ‘At a time when racism and xenophobia are once again on the rise, the renaming of the Harry Stevens’ building is a small but significant step toward confronting the harmful effects that racist and anti-immigrant policies have had in Canada’s history.’