On April 11, 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that he would deliver a formal apology for the Komagata Maru incident on behalf of the Canadian government in the House of Commons in May 2016. The incident involved a Japanese steamship, Komagata Maru, that carried 376 passengers from British India to Vancouver, BC in 1914. While 24 passengers were admitted into the Dominion of Canada, the government denied entry to 353 passengers, forcing them to return to India. The Komagata Maru became one among the many incidents in early 20th century Canadian history where exclusion laws were enforced to restrict the entry of settlers of Asian origin. Trudeau was not the first politician to address the policies and practices of discrimination that were directed at early Asian settlers by the Canadian state in the early 20th century. On May 23, 2008, the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia unanimously passed a resolution that apologized for the Komagata Maru incident. At the federal level, Prime Minister Stephen Harper appeared later that summer at the Ghadri Babiyan Da Mela in Surrey, B.C. to issue an apology for the Komagata Maru incident in response to a motion that was introduced in the House of Commons. Disregarding complaints from Sikh community members who demanded more formal recognition, the Harper closed this chapter of apologies. Nonetheless, the story of the Komagata Maru–finally acknowledged by the Canadian Government as an injustice against the Sikh community–would quickly find its place within the landscape of Canadian multiculturalism as the centenary of the 1914 incident arrived.
The timely apology follows the appointment of what the newly-elected Trudeau government has called “a cabinet that looks like Canada” following the 2015 Canadian federal election. With an equal number of men and women, two aboriginal politicians, two persons with disabilities, four Sikhs, and one Muslim woman, the government was heralded by news media as the most diverse in Canadian history. While unrepresented ethnic minority groups critiqued the new cabinet, the Sikh-Canadian community celebrated as the Punjabi became the third most spoken language in the Canadian parliament–only three years after it had become the third most spoken language in the entire country. Comparing his cabinet with the Hindutva government of his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi, Trudeau remarked “I have more Sikhs in my cabinet than Modi.” Benefiting from the promises of multicultural incorporation, Canadian-Sikhs have slowly become “not only compatible with but exemplary of neoliberal democratic ethics and citizenships.”
The emergence of Sikhs in the Canadian public imaginary as Canada’s model minority has led to a number of public history projects directed at uncovering the struggles contributions and stories of Sikh-Canadians as a part of the history of the South Asian diaspora in Canada. Sponsored by the Government of India’s Ministry of Culture, the 2015 Komagata Maru Collection at the Simon Fraser University Library was the culmination of a year-long series of events, talks, tours and exhibitions that took place in India and Canada to commemorate the centennial of the Komagata Maru by the Government of India. While many of the funded projects sought to obscure the migrants Sikh identities by rather celebrating the “the history of Indian migration to Canada” and the contributions of “Indo-Canadians” in an effort to strengthen diplomatic relations between the Canadian and Indian government, a number of Sikh organizations focused on emphasizing the Sikh identities of the passengers in their own projects, including the release of a commemorative stamp by Canada Post and the opening of the Komagata Maru Museum by the Khalsa Diwan Society in Vancouver, BC. Writing the story of early Sikh migration into a broader story about South Asian migration to Canada, these public history projects have neglected to address how the histories of migration from the Indian subcontinent were deeply divided along caste and class lines: ones that rendered the struggles of lower-caste laborers incommensurate with those of upper-caste settlers from South Asia. The historical and on-going struggles of lower caste South Asian migrants have been obfuscated and rendered illegible under the "archives of multiculturalism" where South Asian, Indian and Sikh are uncritically reified as effective categories for understanding a history of migration and belonging that continues to be marked by colonial divisions of humanity along racial and caste lines.
In her recent highly-acclaimed book, “The Intimacies of Four Continents,” Lisa Lowe introduces the term “archives of liberalism,” which she defines as referring to the literary, cultural and political philosophical narratives of progress and individual freedom. Lowe disturbs narrativity and the archive as bounded concepts, pointing to how the spatio-temporality and politics of narrative formations–in this case exploring the narration of political emancipation embedded in modern liberalism–can be understood through archival thinking. I draw on her work to introduce the term “archives of multiculturalism.” By “archives of multiculturalism,” I mean the literary, cultural and political philosophical narratives of emancipation via inclusion, where political emancipation manifests through the inclusion of “other” cultures into the structures of white civil and political society–often at the expense of claims by indigenous nations.
I am left thinking through the utility of the term “archives of multiculturalism” and the potential extent of its application. Whereas it could be applied to other white settler societies such as New Zealand or Australia, there are ways in which the term could be modified or further specified to better capture the workings of multiculturalism in Canada. In Multiculturalism within a bilingual framework : language, race, and belonging in Canada, Eve Haque explains how Canada’s policy of “multiculturalism within a bilingual framework’ emerged to install a racial order of difference and belonging through language in the on-going project of white settler nation-building.” It follows that in talking about the Canadian case, one could contend that grounding down “archives of multiculturalism within a bilingual framework” would bring more sharply into relief the linguistic exceptionalism of Canadian multiculturalism. We must negotiate, think through, and lay bare for our audience the politics behind the formations that structure our inquiries into the past.
"Commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the Komagata Maru Incident." Government of Canada, Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Communications Branch. Web. 22 Apr. 2016;
Ford, Matt. "A Canadian Cabinet for 2015." The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 5 Nov. 2015
Haque, Eve. Multiculturalism within a Bilingual Framework: Language, Race, and Belonging in Canada. Toronto: U of Toronto, 2012. Print.
"I Have More Sikhs in My Cabinet than Modi: Canadian PM Trudeau." The Indian Express. 13 Mar. 2016.
Lowe, Lisa. The Intimacies of Four Continents. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015.
Puar, Jasbir K. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer times. Durham: Duke UP, 2007. Print.
"Trudeau to Offer Apology in House of Commons for 1914 Komagata Maru Incident." Vancouver Sun. 12 Apr. 2016.