When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rose in the House of Commons on Wednesday to issue a formal apology for the Komagata Maru incident, Arjan Bhullar was there to witness the historic event.
“Goosebumps,” said Bhullar, co-head coach of the Cascades wrestling program at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford.
“It’s a moment to be proud of.”
Bhullar, a gold medallist at the 2010 Commonwealth Games and the first Canadian of South Asian descent to qualify for freestyle wrestling in the Olympic Games, was one of several Indo-Canadian community representatives invited to Ottawa to watch the prime minister speak.
Bhullar said he grew up hearing the story of the Komagata Maru over and over: how the Japanese steamship of that name arrived in Vancouver on May 23, 1914 with hundreds of Sikh, Muslim and Hindu passengers seeking admission to Canada.
And how the authorities refused to let them off the boat, which remained anchored in Burrard Inlet for two months before all but twenty were sent back to India.
The ship was escorted out of the harbour on July 23, 1914 and forced to sail back to India where 19 of the passengers were shot and killed in a confrontation with authorities upon disembarking and many others were jailed.
“Any time there is a community event, it will come up,” Bhullar (pictured) told The News.
“Any time an apology to another community is made, it comes up. This is something that is unfinished business for us.”
He said the apology will mean that future generations will have a different story to tell; of how an apology was finally issued for the wrong that was done more than a century ago.
“(While the apology was being made, I was) thinking back to the people and faces that I’ve seen over the years in the pictures,” Bhullar said.
“It was a great moment I will hang on to forever.”
Calling it a “great injustice” Trudeau told the House of Commons that while Canada cannot “solely be blamed for every tragic mistake” that occurred with the Komagata Maru and its passengers, the government was responsible for the laws that prevented the passengers from immigrating.
“For that, and for every regrettable consequence that followed, we are sorry.” Trudeau said.
“I apologize, first and foremost, to the victims of the incident. No words can fully erase the pain and suffering they experienced. Regrettably, the passage of time means that none are alive to hear our apology today.”
The Prime Minister went on apologize for “our indifference to your plight … our failure to recognize all that you had to offer … for the laws that discriminated against you, so senselessly … and for not formally apologizing sooner.”
The statement was welcomed by Satwinder Bains, the director of the Centre for Indo–Canadian Studies at UFV in Abbotsford.
“It puts to rest the community’s angst about a wrong that was done by the government of the time,” Bains told The News.
“It’s significant that we can look back and see how far we have come,” Bains said.
But she cautioned issues of racism and colonialism remain in Canada and will not go away as a result of the apology.
“We shouldn’t get complacent,” Bains said.
The apology was endorsed by opposition Leader Rona Ambrose, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, BQ Leader Rheal Fortin and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May.
In 2008, then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued an apology during a Surrey speech, but that was not considered by many in the Indo-Canadian community to have the same weight as a formal apology in parliament.
The B.C. government formally apologized for the incident in May 2008.