Comment: Panama Maru incident shook Ottawa and B.C.

One hundred years ago today, the steamship Panama Maru arrived at the outer wharfs in downtown Victoria. Aboard were Narain Singh and 55 fellow passengers from India seeking entry into Canada.

Awaiting them at the docks were two groups.

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Immigration officials led by William H. Hopkinson, a former policeman from British India, came down to the docks to prevent the newcomers from entering Canada.

The second group, a local delegation from the newly constructed Sikh temple (gurdwara) on Topaz Street, came to welcome the passengers and help them settle. As pioneers tell the story, the community was close-knit and the gurdwara acted as a reception centre open to all — Sikh, Hindu, Muslim alike.

Local police harassed the community delegation at the docks, preventing them from having any contact with the passengers. By the time immigration officials had finished, 39 of the passengers, including Narain Singh, were behind bars at the Immigration Detention Centre on Dallas Road and ordered deported.

Led by Victoria activist Kartar Singh Hundal and Husain Rahim, an activist from Vancouver, the communities campaigned against the detention of the passengers. They retained a lawyer, J.E. Bird, to challenge the deportation orders. The outcome surprised everyone.

The legal hurdle Bird and the 39 Panama Maru passengers faced were two orders-in-council, the “Continuous Journey” regulation and a $200 requirement to land in Canada, introduced by the federal government at the urging of B.C. politicians.

Year after year, the B.C. legislature had introduced racist immigration legislation (the Natal Act, modelled on South African legislation) and other discriminatory measures, and continually pressed the federal government to do the same.

Indeed, the first sessions of the B.C. legislature after Confederation disenfranchised First Nations and Chinese together. “Otherwise,” stated one legislator, “we might, after next election, see an Indian occupying the Speaker’s chair, or have a Chinese majority in the house.”

Finally, after Euro-Canadians rioted and attacked Chinatown and Little Tokyo in Vancouver in 1907, the Canadian government brought in new immigration restrictions, adding Japanese and South Asians to their hit list. The continuous-journey regulation required South Asians to travel directly from India to Canada. The government then pressured steamship companies to avoid any such service.

In court, Bird argued first that the law was racist, but that argument was dismissed. He then argued the regulations’ language was flawed and in a surprise decision, B.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice C.J. Hunter agreed, declaring the continuous-journey regulation and $200 requirement invalid for not conforming to the Immigration Act.

The passengers were free. That day, Nov. 24, 1913, they and their supporters marched from the Supreme Court in Bastion Square to the Topaz Street gurdwara to celebrate this victory.

The Hunter decision shook Robert Borden’s government in Ottawa. The B.C. premier, Richard McBride, was also taken aback. They soon took their revenge.

Worried that Japanese shipping companies might begin a direct steamship passage from India to Canada, thus negating the continuous-journey regulations, McBride and Borden were already planning an additional order-in-council to stop South Asian migration.

Cloaked as an emergency measure because of a declining economy, the new measure, discussed in cabinet even before the Panama Maru arrived, would ostensibly close all ports in B.C. to immigration.

Stung by the Hunter judgment, Borden’s cabinet rushed to pass Order-In-Council 2642, closing all ports to immigration. The government then followed up by rewording the continuous-journey regulation and the $200 requirement so they conformed to the immigration law.

Thus when the Komagata Maru arrived the following May, the deck had been further stacked against newcomers from India. However, not everyone was opposed to Asian immigration.

Even in 1913, South Asians in B.C. had Euro-Canadian allies. Some were from the left, like the lawyer J.E. Bird. Others simply believed in equality in the British Empire. A Presbyterian minister in Victoria, L.W. Hall, actively promoted Indo-Canadian rights and in 1913, Isabella Ross Broad published “An Appeal for Fair Play for the Sikhs in Canada.”

Much has changed in the past 100 years. After many years of struggle, indigenous peoples and Asian-Canadians won the right to vote. And immigration from South Asia has remade the face of Canada.

And yet … .

Reactions to the arrival of Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka in 2009, to Fujian boat people in 1999 and the treatment of the Air India disaster in 1985 all point to troubling continuities.

Factor in the challenges First Nations people face daily and perhaps it is time that we surmount what legal historian Constance Backhouse has call the “ideology of racelessness” that continues to scar this land.

John Price teaches in the history department and Sonia Manak is a graduate student in education at the University of Victoria. Ella Bedard, Gregory Kier, Andrew Wong and Paul Higgins assisted with the research for this article.

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