Surrey council has voted in favour of installing commemorative street name signs on 75A Avenue to honour the victims of the 1914 Komagata Maru incident.
During its July 8 meeting, council approved staff recommendations to install commemorative street name signs – Komagata Maru Way – on 75A Avenue between 120th and 121A streets.
Staff said the signs could be installed “within two or three weeks” of council’s approval.
Before the vote, Councillor Brenda Locke said she supported the initiative but with “a bit of trepidation.”
“I do not believe there was proper stakeholder consultation and that we’re rushing this project,” she said, suggesting more people with experience in South Asian studies should be engaged.
“You know that every soul on that ship died because of ignorance and racism. I’m not confident that naming a one-block street at the back of a strip mall meant for local traffic only will have the intended impact,” she said before voting in favour. “I certainly do not believe this street naming or story board is adequate to acknowledge the Komagata Maru tragedy nor to acknowledge the contribution of the South Asian community in Surrey. I dearly hope we add to this. I’m supportive of us having people do the work but I hope we can more than just the street naming.”
The lone vote of opposition against the street-naming initiative was Councillor Steven Pettigrew, who noted there was both support and opposition for the project in the community.
“All I’m left with is policy,” Pettigrew said, noting the city introduced a new commemorative street-naming policy just months ago.
“It doesn’t match our existing policy,” he said, adding that this would set a precedent for other groups to come forward.
“Maybe that policy needs to be addressed.”
Raj Toor, whose grandfather came to Canada on the Komagata Maru, along with the Descendants of the Komagata Maru Society, has been pushing for the City of Surrey to rename a street in honour of the passengers. Toor previously told the Now-Leader he thought Surrey would be a good fit to memorialize the passengers because the city has such a large South Asian community.
In 1914, the Komagata Maru arrived in Vancouver from Hong Kong, carrying 376 passengers. Most of the passengers were immigrants from the Punjab region in what was then British India.
The hundreds of passengers were not allowed on shore. For two months, they remained in the waters outside of Vancouver before being forced to return to India. But upon their return, some of the passengers were shot and killed “in an encounter with British Indian police,” according to the canadianencyclopedia.ca.
Leading up to council’s Monday meeting, Toor said that if council approves the recommendations that it will be “great for those passengers who suffered a lot during the tragedy.”
“We are very happy, families (of the descendants of the passengers) are very happy,” Toor said.
Originally Toor wanted 128th Street renamed, possibly between 72nd and 88th avenues, but he said he was told by city staff that it would be difficult to rename that. He said he asked staff which street they would be OK with and he agreed on 75A Avenue.
Despite first going to the Heritage Advisory Commission back in January, and attended several meetings with staff and the commission, Toor said he was “very positive” he would be able to get commemorative signage.
“I had to work very hard for that one.”
Meantime, city council on Monday also voted in favour of other staff recommendations – identified by the Surrey Heritage Advisory Commission during its May meeting – which called for a research project on South Asians in Surrey, a heritage storyboard and for the city continue to offer programming that “shares the culture, history and contributions of South Asian residents in Surrey.”
The research project, according to the report, would include hiring a researcher to “provide an in-depth research service to produce a legacy document, which thoroughly documents South Asian history in Surrey” and will “fill a significant gap in the existing historical record.”
“Despite having a rich and diverse South Asian population today, little is known about the earliest South Asian residents in Surrey,” the report notes. “This research will become a legacy resource accessible to all researchers at the Surrey Archives.”
The heritage storyboard would provide an overview of the Komagata Maru incident and the reverberations the event has for many Surrey residents today. It would be installed at R.A. Nicholson Park, which is just east of an existing Komagata Maru mural.
The report says the interpretive panel would be installed following the completion of the research project.
An existing Komagata Maru mural was installed in 2006 at the Progressive Intercultural Community Services Society complex (12075 75A Ave.) in Strawberry Hill, according to the city. It was painted by Surrey artist Jarnail Singh, and the words “We Remember” accompany the mural.
For Toor, the naming of the street and also the storyboard in the park in memory of the Komagata Maru passengers is “an ideal way for Surrey residents to connect with their past in order to build a more peaceful and tolerant tomorrow.”
Michael Gibbs, president of Surrey Historical Society, also lauded the initiative.
“We are in full support of any council decision that celebrates the multi-national heritage that makes up our city,” he told the Now-Leader on Monday, ahead of the vote.
Gibbs noted the society is currently working with Surrey Archives on research into the South Asian community dating back to the 1880s.
“We’ve uncovered many, many photos of South Asian workers dating from the 1880s and 1890s. Their presence here has been significant and we agree fully with honouring that heritage.”