Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a formal apology on May 18 for the 1914 Komagata Maru incident in which Canada turned away a ship carrying hundreds of South Asian immigrants. (Reuters)

On Wednesday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivered a formal apology in his country’s House of Commons for an incident that took place more than a century ago.

In mid-May 1914, the Komagata Maru, a Japanese steamship, arrived in Vancouver after leaving Hong Kong in early April. On board were 376 passengers, most of whom were Sikh migrants from what was then British India. The ship was not allowed to dock.

A 1908 Canadian law at the time forbade arrivals in the country who did not make a “continuous journey” from their nation of birth or citizenship. In an era when hundreds of thousands of white European immigrants were settling in Canada, the law was seen as a measure to stymie Indian arrivals because it was practically impossible to travel directly from the Indian mainland to North America.

In a challenge to the rules, the Komagata Maru, chartered by a Sikh businessman with ties to an influential Sikh political party in the Americas, steamed across the Pacific. Its arrival in Canada was anticipated by doom-mongering local headlines, which warned of an impending “Hindu invasion.”

Sir Richard McBride, then the Conservative premier of British Columbia, made clear the explicit racism of Canada’s policies on the night the Komagata Maru reached Vancouver.

“To admit Orientals in large numbers would mean the end, the extinction of the white people,” he said. “And we always have in mind the necessity of keeping this a white man’s country.”

After an almost two-month standoff, which also involved feisty demonstrations by ethnic Indians on Vancouver’s shores, the ship was eventually turned away. When it reached Calcutta, now Kolkata, in India, British colonial authorities attempted to seize suspected Sikh radicals on board. The semi-riot that ensued saw security forces kill at least 19 passengers and arrest many others.

The incident is a reminder, particularly for Canada’s considerable Sikh population, of the widespread discrimination and bigotry meted out on Indians and other Asians on the west coast of the Americas a century ago.

"Mr. Speaker, today I rise in this House to offer an apology on behalf of the Government of Canada, for our role in the Komagata Maru incident," Trudeau began at the end of Question Time in the House of Commons on Wednesday.

"Today – while knowing that no words can fully erase the pain and suffering experienced by the passengers – I offer a sincere apology on behalf of the government for the laws in force at the time that allowed Canada to be indifferent to the plight of the passengers of the Komagata Maru," he said.

"Canada cannot solely be blamed for every tragic mistake that occurred with the Komagata Maru and its passengers. But Canada’s government was, without question, responsible for the laws that prevented these passengers from immigrating peacefully and securely. For that, and for every regrettable consequence that followed, we are sorry," Trudeau concluded, to a standing ovation in the chamber.

The gesture was a long time coming.

“The real value in the apology lies in a re-examination,” Ali Kazimi, an Indian-Canadian academic who made a documentary on the Komagata Maru story, told the Toronto Star. He added that that should lead to a recognition “that Canada for the first 100 years of its existence had what was effectively a ‘White Canada’ policy.”

In 2006, Trudeau’s predecessor, Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, made a formal apology in the House of Commons to the country’s Chinese community for the discriminatory “head tax” imposed on Chinese immigrants who came to Canada between 1885 and 1923. In 2008, Harper apologized in Parliament to the country’s indigenous populations for an official government policy that saw tens of thousands of indigenous children taken from their families and resettled in boarding schools.

But an apologetic speech he made in 2008 at a Sikh cultural event in British Columbia didn’t assuage Sikh demands for a proper reckoning with the past, which many argued must also include a formal apology delivered in Parliament.

Trudeau, who defeated Harper and the Conservatives in elections last year and appointed the world’s most Sikh cabinet, promptly obliged. Perhaps more than any other politician in the Western hemisphere, Trudeau has also been particularly outspoken about the need to welcome Syrian refugees.

“We failed them utterly,” Trudeau said in April when he indicated his intentions to make a formal apology. “As a nation, we should never forget the prejudice suffered by the Sikh community at the hands of the Canadian government of the day.”

Descendants of those aboard the Komagata Maru are joined him in the House of Commons.

“It’s staggering,” Sukhi Ghunam, whose great-grandfather was aboard the Komagata Maru and never set foot in Canada, told the Globe and Mail. “I don’t think he ever thought this moment would come.”

This post has been updated to include Trudeau's remarks in the House of Commons.

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