NEW DELHI: Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau notched up another signal honour as a liberal humanist by pledging to make a full apology in the House of Commons for a century-old slight against Indians, mainly Sikhs.
In 1914, the Canadian government turned away 376 immigrants from Punjab who had sailed from India on board the ship Komagata Maru, after quarantining the vessel off the port of Vancouver. Following a two month long stand-off during which the Canadians refused to allow passengers to disembark, the ship was escorted out by gunships — one of them ironically called HMCS Rainbow — and sent back to Calcutta, where clashes with British soldiers killed 19 and ended in prison sentence to others.
“The passengers of the Komagata Maru like millions of immigrants to Canada since were seeking refuge and better lives for their families. With so much to contribute to their new home, they chose Canada and we failed them utterly. As a nation, we should never forget the prejudice suffered by the Sikh community at the hands of the Canadian government of the day. We should not and we will not,” Trudeau said at an event to celebrate Baisakhi in Ottawa. “That is why next month, on May 18, I will stand in the House of Commons and offer a full apology for the Komagata Maru incident,” he added.
The Canadian premier, already a darling of the liberal constituency across the world, has particularly endeared himself to Sikhs in Canada even before he inducted four of them in his cabinet (and jokingly boasted he had more Sikhs in his government than Narendra Modi). The apology pledge on Monday, made at a prayer meeting where he wore a saffron headscarf, was preceded by a widely-distributed video greeting to Sikhs on the occasion of Baisakhi, ending with him greeting them with “Wahe Guruji da Khalsa Wahe Guruji da Fateh”, the traditional Sikh invocation.
Even before he was elected, the Sikh community was electrified by another video that showed him dancing the bhangra, and his actions since he was elected have enthralled the community so much that some have dubbed him “Justin Singh Trudeau.”
On Monday, Trudeau stepped it up several notches saying “an apology made in the House of Commons will not erase the pain and suffering of those who lives through that shameful experience, but an apology is not only the appropriate action to take, it’s the right action to take and the House is the appropriate place for it to happen.”
It was in the House of Commons that the laws that prevented the passengers from disembarking were first passed and so it’s fitting that the government should apologize there on behalf of all Canadians, he added, referring obliquely to an unmet Sikh demand for an apology in the legislature after then Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper had expressed regret outside the house in 2008.
Trudeau reminded the gathering that April is a special month not only for Sikhs but for all Canadians, since it marks the anniversary of the adoption of the charter of rights and freedoms which ensures that no Canadian needs to make the choice between their religion and activities in their day-to-day lives. The charter ensures that the five sacred Ks of the Sikhs are protected, he said, adding that as Canadian Sikhs gather with their loved ones to mark the creation of the Khalsa, it’s a chance to reflect on shared values and celebrate the successes of the past year.
The immense grace Trudeau has shown since coming to office has won him admirers across the world, including on social media. “I’m honored that 2 million people around the world have now ‘liked’ my Facebook page. Thank you to all 2 million of you!” he posted on Facebook on Monday.