OVER 100 South Asian advocates, artists, social workers, labour unions, academics and community groups are issuing a joint statement marking the centenary of Komagata Maru’s landing in Canada on May 23, insisting that little has changed in the last hundred years, and calling for permanent immigration status for temporary foreign workers.
“The Komagata Maru is not just a historic incident that can be washed away by commemorative stamps,” says Toronto-based workers rights organizer Sonia Singh. “We need to seriously change the course of Canadian immigration policy and include access to permanent residency for poor and working class migrants now rather than wait a 100 years to apologize for the mistreatment of migrant workers.”
Signed by over 100 individuals and organizations from across Canada, the statement reads “We call on the Government of Canada to immediately reverse the moratorium on migrant workers in the food sector. Canada and its provinces must ensure access to permanent residence and full citizenship, a living wage, rights and benefits for poor and working class migrants and their families…We refuse divide-and-conquer strategies that pit unemployed citizens against migrant workers and newly arrived migrants against those who have lived here for generations.”
Harsha Walia, author and activist based in Vancouver adds, “The expansion of the temporary worker program is a direct legacy of the racist exclusion of the Komagata Maru. Restrictive immigration and refugee laws continue to make it impossible for refugees, family members, and skilled workers to live in Canada permanently. And the calls to deport and exclude migrant workers echo the same sentiment as one hundred years ago.”
Montreal based South Asian Women Centre’s Dolores Chew agrees. “Today we need to reflect on how Komagata Maru’s legacy continues in the current immigration system rather than put it aside as a now dealt with historical incident. For the ones aboard the Komagata Maru that were turned away, and eventually jailed and murdered, we can only begin to justly honour their lives when such atrocities no longer happen.”
The statement (http://komagatamarulegacy.tumblr.com/):
ON May 23rd, we commemorate the immense injustice that was the turning away of the Komagata Maru. We remember our elders in Vancouver and across Coast and Straits Salish Territories that raised money, and attempted to defy the blockade to take supplies to those trapped aboard the ship. We honor those that were jailed, and murdered upon their return to a colonized India. This May 23rd, we mark one hundred years of resilience and resistance against racisms and oppression, despite which our communities continue to live and flourish here.
For us, the Komagata Maru is not a historic ‘incident’ but one step in an ongoing history of exclusion of our communities.
We have seen the mass arrest of migrants aboard the MV Sun Sea and the drumming up of racist hysteria against the Tamil community. Recent anti-immigrant and anti-refugee policies have made it impossible for most of us to reunite permanently with our parents, grandparents, spouses and children. Conditional permanent residence requirements for some spousal sponsorships mean that women facing abuse may be forced into further vulnerability or risk losing status. Fewer members of our communities doing lower wage jobs are able to come here with full immigration status. Even those that do arrive with permanent immigration status and higher qualifications often end up de-skilled or living in poverty.
On April 24th, a moratorium was placed on temporary foreign worker jobs in the food sector. Now nearly 50,000 migrant workers are locked into potentially abusive jobs with even less ability to move within the industry. Workers that have paid thousands of dollars to unscrupulous recruiters to get jobs in Canada are also severely impacted. Those working in the food sector are almost entirely racialized, and many of them are South Asian.
Many organizations are calling for the ban to be extended to all migrant workers. These demands are part of the ongoing legacy of exclusion that the Komagata Maru embodies. Just as the Komagata Maru’s arrival was accompanied by racist trumpeting from governments, and mainstream voices, we see our newspapers today filled with the claim: “Foreigners are taking our jobs”. There are rallies against migrant workers in Alberta today, just as there were against the Sikh, Muslim and Hindu families from Punjab aboard the Komagata Maru in 1914.
The Refugee Exclusion Act, the so-called Human Smuggling Act, Labour Market Opinions, Work Permits, Quotas and Moratoriums are the legal tools of exclusion today, just as the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Head Tax and the Continuous Journey regulations have been before.
The Komagata Maru is not a failure of the past that can simply be recovered through apologies and commemorative stamps. Those are important steps in a process of reconciliation that has barely begun. But, it is imperative that we stop exclusionary laws and policies now, rather than wait for apologies from future governments.
We call on the Government of Canada to immediately reverse the moratorium on migrant workers in the food sector. The temporary worker program is undoubtedly a racist and classist program, but recent calls to deport and exclude migrant workers denies their mobility rights and basic humanity. Instead of exploiting migrant workers as cheap and deportable labour, federal and provincial governments must ensure access to permanent residence, a living wage, rights and benefits for poor and working class migrants and their families.
As South Asians, as migrants, and as allies, we refuse divide-and-conquer strategies that pit unemployed citizens against migrant workers and newly arrived migrants against those who have lived here for generations. We commit to working together, and in solidarity with all those that deserve and demand fairness and dignity, particularly, low-income, migrant and Indigenous communities.
It is time to stop the injustice personified in the Komagata Maru.