Raj Singh Toor

The Komagata Maru Story, 1914 – 2019

My name is Raj Singh Toor. I was born on January 10, 1965, in Bhaini Araian Village, Ludhiana District, Punjab, India. I came to Canada in 1983, and have been living in Surrey for more than 20 years. I am a volunteer and the Vice President and spokesperson for the ‘Descendants of the non-profit Komagata Society.’ The Komagata Maru came to Vancouver on May 23, 1914, with 376 passengers, including my grandfather, Baba Puran Singh Janetpura. He was well-educated, having studied at an English-language high school in Ludhiana, Punjab, and telecommunications at the University of Amity. He was coming to Canada to further his education. 

He was told at the time that any Indian who was part of the British Commonwealth would be welcomed to study further their studies in Canada. The passengers of the ship were all British subjects and thus British passport holders. I remember my grandfather telling us about his painful experience connected with this trip on the Komagata Maru. He told us how the Canadian government denied entry to all the passengers. He also described how no food, water or medication was provided by the Canadian government. Only the local South Asian community fundraised and provided the passengers with food, water and medication. 

The Komagata Maru was forcefully sent back to India after two months stay at harbour under the shadow of a military ship by a discriminatory law. The British were ruling India at that time. When the Komagata Maru arrived in India, British troops shot at them. Twenty were killed on the spot, many were injured and the rest of  were put in jail for a long period of time. My grandfather was one of those who served five years in jail. When he was released, the government put restrictions on him so he could not leave his village. 

Most of the passengers joined the freedom movement, including my grandfather. India finally became independent in 1947 though it is undeniable that the Komagata Maru was the turning point in the Indian freedom movement. In 1962, my grandfather was recognized by the Punjab, India government for his services and for his active role in the Indian freedom movement. In 1968 my uncle sponsored my grandfather to come to Canada, however, he refused, saying that he had a painful, bitter memory of Canada. He said that he would not go there, but the South Asian community would go there and would be very successful there, and live happily and peacefully there. His words came true. Today the South Asian community in Canada is living very successfully, happily, and peacefully.

The Descendants of the Komagata Maru Society worked for more than 15 years for apologies from both provincial and federal governments. We never asked for any compensation. The BC Government apologized for this incident in the BC Legislature Building on May 23, 2008. I witnessed this apology. Before the federal election, I had meetings with Justin Trudeau and asked him if under the circumstance they would form the government,  whether he would apologize for the Komagata Maru incident? He said, “Yes, Mr. Toor.”

After the election, Justin Trudeau became the prime minister and he followed through on his promise of an official apology. The Prime Minister’s Office sent us the official invitation to witness the Komagata Maru apology in the House of Commons. We witnessed this and sat in the Speaker’s Gallery in front of the Prime Minister. In the House of Commons on May 18, 2016, Prime Minister Trudeau apologized to the descendants of the Komagata Maru and the South Asian community. He gave us a respectful and a formal apology. I am thankful to the Honourable Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for giving us a respectful apology in the House Of Commons.

In November 2018, I wrote an email to the Surrey City Council and Mayor on behalf of the ‘Descendants of the Komagata Maru Society,’ requesting the renaming of a street in memory of the Komagata Maru passengers. I had numerous meetings with the Heritage Commission, City of Surrey staff and Mayor Doug McCallum. After months of diligent follow up, on July 8, 2019, the mayor gave me the good news that 75A Avenue would be renamed as ‘Komagata Maru Way’ in memory of the passengers of that ship. In addition to this there would be a storyboard in R. A. Nicholson Park permanently displayed about the ordeal that the passengers of the Komagata Maru who had to endure so much because they were seen as second class citizens by the government. I am grateful that the city is creating a long overdue tribute to those passengers who suffered a lot during the tragedy. Their sacrifice and struggle is now appropriately acknowledged by the government and community. 

I also volunteered on the committee that was responsible for the Survivor’s Totem Pole that was raised on November 5, 2016 in Pigeon Park in Vancouver. This totem pole honours survivors of the Downtown East Side and also those victims of colonialism, racism and poverty. I represented the South Asian Community and in particular, the passengers of the Komagata Maru.

On March 16, 2018, I wrote an email on behalf of the ‘Descendants of the Komagata Maru Society’ to the City of Vancouver and requested for a street, building, park, or place to be named in memory of the Komagata Maru passengers . The Vancouver City Council considered the request and sent the matter to the Civic Assets Naming Committee. On June 25, 2018, the Civic Assets Naming Committee unanimously approved the request and put the name on the Civic Asset Name Reserve List. On March 13, 2019, Vancouver City Council unanimously approved the following motion:

  1. THAT Council shows its support for the naming of a civic asset in the Downtown area near the Burrard Inlet waterfront after the Komagata Maru.
  2. THAT Council direct City staff to work with Park
  3. Board staff and with the Civic Asset Naming Committee and the ‘Descendants of the Komagata Maru Society’ to try to find an asset to name.

Currently we are looking to rename a street or park in Vancouver near the Burrard Inlet Waterfront after the Komagata Maru. I am working on this with various City Of Vancouver staff members. In 2018 I wrote an email to the Honourable Prime Minister Justin Trudeau when I heard that a federal building in Vancouver is named after Harry Stevens, one of the men responsible for turning away the Komagata Maru. Descendants of the Komagata Maru families and the South Asian Community wanted to remove the Harry Stevens name from this building. I received a reply back from the Prime Minister’s Office noting the consideration that Harry Steven’s name would be removed from this federal building.

On August 9, 2019 the Honourable Minister Carla Qualtrough officially announced at an event about the removal of the Harry Steven’s name from this federal building on behalf of the Descendants of the Komagata Maru request which was written by myself. I gave a speech at the event and thanked the Honourable Minister Carla Qualtrough and Honourable Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for removing Harry Steven’s name from this Federal building and I also shared my grandfather’s painful story about the Komagata Maru. Removing Harry Steven’s name from the Federal Building in Vancouver will help educate the community and remind us of how unique Canada’s diverse makeup is. We are all richer when we remember how special it is to have so many different ethnic communities living together. While it can’t right past wrongs, I hope that it will help to connect Canadians with their past in order to build a more peaceful and tolerant tomorrow. 

The City Of Brampton Council officially opened the Komagata Maru Park in memory of the Komagata Maru passengers on June 22, 2019. I was invited to the ceremony, and was given five minutes to speak about my grandfather. In my speech I shared my grandfather’s story about Komagata Maru and thanked Honourable Mayor Brown and the City Council of Brampton for recognizing the Komagata Maru Passengers. My grandfather passed away in 1974. In 1976, the Punjab government and my family built a hospital in the village of Janetpura in his honour.  My grandfather used to say one day you could be rich – the next day you could be poor. You could lose everything, but the one thing that no one can take away is your education. And a better educated public and government will ensure that there will be less suffering in this world as people see the damage that racism inflicts on all of us.

We can’t undo the past. We can move forward and leave a legacy for future generations by educating them about the past. Places such as the Komagata Maru Way and the storyboard in the R. A. Nicholson Park will educate the entire community and make us all richer in awareness of how we must show compassion to all people of all races all the time. And with this knowledge we can build a better world, free from the pain and destruction that comes with racism.

-Author, Raj Singh Toor