EXCERPT FROM DEMOCRACY NOW
May 20, 2016
CANADA EXCLUDED DESPERATE REFUGEES
AMY GOODMAN: Ali Kazimi, take it from there, from your documentary, Continuous Journey. What happened at the end?
ALI KAZIMI: In the end, many of the people on the—the survivors, after the shooting, were arrested. Many were treated as seditious revolutionaries.
AMY GOODMAN: And explain exactly where the shooting happened.
ALI KAZIMI: The shooting happened in the village of Baj Baj, which is 26 kilometers away from Calcutta, the port of Calcutta, where the ship was sent back. And the authorities felt that these people, many of whom were returning veterans of the British Indian Army, were going to cause another mutiny in the British Indian Army. This is the thought that terrified the British, when India was immersed in the First World War by the time the ship got back, and the Indian Army was the largest volunteer force, of over 1 million men, to serve in the First World War. And the British couldn't afford to lose India, nor could they afford to lose this immense force on their side in the First World War.
Meanwhile in Canada, the continuous journey regulation, which was used to turn the ship away, was an absolute regulation. We had something called the Chinese Exclusion Act, which mirrored what happened in the U.S. But the Chinese Exclusion Act was not as absolute as the continuous journey regulation, which effectively blocked immigration [to] Canada 'til 1948. And Canada did not drop its race-based immigration laws 'til 1967.
AMY GOODMAN: Right now Canada is dealing with major refugee stories. In the headlines today, Prime Minister Trudeau continuing to—in the headlines today, you had the Canadian government pledging to examine its own practice of detaining asylum seekers, after a string of deaths inside detention centers. Can you relate the two?
ALI KAZIMI: Absolutely, Amy. One of the things that happened with the Komagata Maru was that the passengers were detained outside the rule of law, for two months. They suffered what is happening to the detainees right now who are being held in indefinite detention outside—you know, without due process. Women and children are being held in detention in Canada. The same thing happened on the Komagata Maru. There were women and children on board the ship who were driven to the edge of thirst and starvation, deliberately, by the immigration authorities.
There are many patterns that continue to this day. Canada, for example, has signed an agreement with the United States called the Safe Third Country Agreement, which says that refugees must come by direct journey from the country of persecution to Canada, and if they don't, they will have to seek asylum in the safe third country that they pass through. The vast majority of refugees to Canada come through the U.S. border. And now, by blocking the border since 2003, Amnesty International has condemned Canada for the Safe Third Country Agreement, which has led to a massive drop, a huge drop, in refugee applications to Canada. So, these—the continuous journey regulation, on the one hand, has been apologized for, but there are echoes of it in ongoing Canadian immigration and refugee policies.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, Ali Kazimi, if you asked most Canadians about this apology on Wednesday, they might not even have noticed, because it's been subsumed by another apology, an incident that happened on the same day in the Commons, where you were, a reception then taking place where Prime Minister Trudeau was, and that's what happened with Prime Minister Trudeau trying to manhandle a Conservative member of the Parliament and in trying to get him to sit down so they could vote on assisted dying. And when he was doing this, he inadvertently elbowed a female member of the Parliament. And this has just subsumed all the coverage of everything, it seems, right now in Canada. You were there when Prime Minister Trudeau said to you this would probably happen, to the group of you at the reception for this apology.
ALI KAZIMI: Yeah. I was invited to be one of the witnesses to the apology. And then, as the day progressed, we went from one event to the other. The day ended with a reception for—at which the prime minister came. And we had, by this time, totally lost track of what was happening in the House. He then proceeded to apologize and allude to an event that had happened in the House, which he predicted would take over the news of the apology. And then he, in turn, apologized again and said, "I regret that this has happened, and I am going to be at the center of this, and this is going to take over what we have just achieved today." And he was quite prophetic about it. And there we are, you know?
AMY GOODMAN: How important is it for Canadians to know what took place a century ago?
ALI KAZIMI: I think it's extremely important for Canadians to know what took place a century ago, because this is not just South Asian history, it's Canadian history. It forces us to re-examine our own self-image as somehow this country that is quite different and above what happens in the U.S. Race makes people incredibly uncomfortable in Canada. And any idea that these kind of incredibly racist and deliberately designed laws existed in the country is still not widely known in Canada. And one of the things about the apology was that, you know, in an apology, both sides have to know what happened.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you see this as Canada's "Voyage of the Damned," the MS St. Louis, which took 900 Jews away from Nazi Germany? They tried to get into Cuba; they were denied entry. They tried to get into the U.S.; they were denied entry. And they also tried to get into Canada.
ALI KAZIMI: They tried to get into Canada, yes. And the St. Louis was the second ship to be turned away, the first being the Komagata Maru. So this was the pattern that Canada has in its history. And it's a pattern based on the notion of white superiority. And that, Canada has to confront and has to face head-on, and we haven't done that so far. The apology goes some part in addressing that. I'm glad the prime minister did not stop at just—that this was just about this one incident. I'm glad that he acknowledged that there were discriminatory laws.