On May 23, 1914 a boat carrying 376 South Asian passengers sailed through the waters of the Burrard Inlet and headed toward what was thought to be the promised land. The atmosphere on the Komagata Maru was jubilant as hundreds of Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims anticipated their new lives in Canada. However, the Canadian government denied entry to almost all of the passengers in an effort to ‘keep Canada white’ – the campaign slogan of then Prime Minister Robert Borden. Not a point of pride for Canadians now, and certainly not the sole example of its kind in our history.
In Grade 11 Socials Studies, I think we spent about 15 minutes learning about the Komagata Maru incident. I was captivated by what little we were told and mystified that this was not a larger part of our curriculum. What happened on Canadian shores 100 years ago was important because it highlights a way of thinking that we as a nation must work together to eradicate. It is not a South Asian issue. It’s not even just a Canadian issue. It is also, unfortunately, not a thing of the past.
To commemorate its 100 year mark, eight organizations across Metro Vancouver showcased what they called the ‘living legacies’ of the Komagata Maru episode. The Surrey Art Gallery presented Ruptures in Arrival: Art in the Wake of the Komagata Maru from April 12 – June 15.
The day I had planned to go happened to fall on a teachers’ strike day.
I didn’t know what to do: was the subject appropriate for preschool/early school-age kids? How would I explain the artwork to them without focusing on the hate and negativity? It turned out to be a great lesson – for me.
I was forced to take a step back and look through the eyes of new people on the planet who haven’t been exposed to anything like this, but who may in the future need to deal with these types of issues. I had to cut right to the chase: the simple basic truths behind what happened, and the virtues and ethics that I am hoping my children choose to live by.
I had to talk about something horrific and disturbing in such a way that would leave them feeling hopeful and inspired to be decent human beings.
As we walked through the exhibit, looking at photographs, acrylics on canvas, a documentary film, and other mixed media, I did my best to meet my challenge.
My son moved quickly from one side of the room to another and didn’t seem to be listening to what I was telling my daughter. She asked questions and listened intently as I explained the great mistake made by the Canadian government when they did not let the ship dock so the passengers could come onto the land. We speculated on the emotions felt by the passengers from excitement to confusion to rage. We decided that the actions of the government and, subsequently, the police were unkind and also came from a place of fear. The government didn’t know the people on board personally, they were just guessing about what they were like, and what life would be like if they were to live in one place with them. I told her that was called judging and that can often lead to pain.
I knew I had to turn it around though or she might end up focusing on the mistake and fear, when what I really wanted her to contemplate was how she wanted to treat others. This led to a wonderful discussion about bullying and filling people’s buckets (building self-esteem).
My son didn’t participate in our discussion at all, but I didn’t mind; my big goal for him during the hour we were there was to not touch any of the artwork!
At dinner that evening, my husband asked the kids how their day was. I almost choked on my food when my son piped up, “So…the government…they made a big mistake…and they didn’t let the people come out of the boat. That wasn’t kind.” He frowned.
What? I had no idea he was even paying attention.
I was so happy to have been able to view the exhibit and couldn’t believe what a different experience it was for me to do so with my children. I am always amazed at how seeing things through their eyes makes things so much simpler.
This post is dedicated to all the people of the world who continue to struggle with their acceptance of others, and to those who suffer the consequences of their fear.