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December 18, 2023

City of Vancouver’s Flawed 2023 Komagata Maru Proclamation

Symbolic art proclaimed as fact by Mayor Ken Sim
By Zool Suleman
Taike-sye’yə. Komagata Maru Mural Project. Artists: Keerat Kaur, Alicia Point (Musqueam, Stó:lō, Kwantlen) , Cyler Sparrow-Point (Musqueam). Source: Vancouver Mural Festival.
Taike-sye’yə. Komagata Maru Mural Project. Artists: Keerat Kaur, Alicia Point (Musqueam, Stó:lō, Kwantlen) , Cyler Sparrow-Point (Musqueam). Source: Vancouver Mural Festival.

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Rungh News investigated a story about the City of Vancouver’s 2023 Komagata Maru proclamation. The proclamation relied upon a city report. Rungh News was seeking a transparent set of responses from the city about how the report was researched and prepared.

On May 23, 2023 Mayor Ken Sim proclaimed a “Komagata Maru Day of Remembrance”. The proclamation marked the 109th anniversary of the Komagata Maru incident of 1914 when 340 Sikhs, 24 Muslims and 12 Hindus arrived in Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet. The Komagata Maru was not allowed to dock. The passengers were denied entry due to Canada’s racist laws that were designed to keep out immigrants from British India. The 2023 proclamation follows a 2021 apology by the city and a commitment to South Asian redress.

The 2023 proclamation also included the statement that there “are accounts that Indigenous people, attempted to provide aid to the passengers in the form of food and water but were unsuccessful as the Government restricted access to the ship”. Rungh News sought clarification about the source and nature of these “accounts”.

This statement relies upon a May 15, 2023 report (RTS NO: 15600) presented by Sandra Singh, General Manager of Arts, Culture and Community Services. In the report, at footnote 16, the evidence cited for this claim of aid is an August 2019 Vancouver Mural Festival mural project, Taike-sye’yə, and a May 21, 2021 YouTube video produced by the City of Vancouver, which refers to the same mural. No Indigenous sources are cited for this claim of Indigenous aid.

Rungh News wrote to Sandra Singh on September 20, 2023 to ask who had conducted the research for the statement that Indigenous peoples had attempted to provide aid to the Komagata Maru passengers. Rungh News informed Singh that a simple Google search for the terms “Komagata Maru Indigenous help” yielded several articles on the first page of the search, from 2019 to 2021, that disputed the 2023 city report’s claim.

Sandra Singh did not reply to Rungh News but instead Charlene Bayer, Senior Communications Specialist, replied on September 25, 2023 that City staff had worked with Monica Cheema, an external community-engaged researcher and various local groups, including the Komagata Maru Descendants Society, the Khalsa Diwan Society, Punjabi Market Collective, and the City of Vancouver’s Historical Discrimination against People of South Asian Canadian Descent Advisory Group. No Indigenous group was mentioned as being a part of the research.

Rungh News reached out to Monica Cheema on October 5, 2023, about her role in the report. In her very candid reply to Rungh News, she noted that the report was led, written and edited by City staff with a limited role by external consultants such as herself. Cheema referred Rungh News to Sandra Singh and Ari Bhullar at the City of Vancouver. Cheema did not reply to further questions sent to her by Rungh News. Attempts to reach Ari Bhullar were not successful. Further attempts to seek information about the report and the proclamation from the city resulted in increasingly opaque responses.

The South Asian Canadian Descent Advisory Group at the time of a June 22, 2022 city report (RTS No: 14583) consisted of Dr. Satwinder Bains, Gulzar Nanda, Dave Mann, Manjot Bains, Rizwaan Abbas, Wally Oppal, Baltej Singh Dhillon, Jovan Narwal, Humna Khan, Prem Gill, Aneesha Grewal, Harman Bains, Alex Sangha, Jag Nagra, and Paneet Singh. Appendix C to this report notes that “staff and advisory committee recognizes that this committee is missing representation from important sub-groups of South Asian Canadian communities”.

Rungh News contacted some of the Advisory Group members. Two admitted that they were not very involved with the group. One group member referred to the city’s South Asian redress process as “not making sense” and that it “wasn’t handled well”. This same group member, when asked about who was overrepresented in 2022, mused about whether it related to a “Sikh/Punjabi thing” and wondered if the issues were broader.

Ali Kazimi wrote in The Conversation on September 19, 2019 that the claims of Indigenous assistance are “an artistic interpretation and contain unverified facts.” While this “tale of a cross-cultural solidarity and resistance” sounds amazing, it is founded in a rush by politicians Carla Qualtrough and Harjit S. Sajjan, and others, to embrace a symbolic narrative just before a federal election.

The history of how the Taike-sye’yə mural was commissioned have been altered on the festival’s website. Well respected scholars Professor Anne Murphy, Professor Hugh Johnston, and Professor Ali Kazimi in their article, True Both to History, and to Solidarity question the premise of the mural. The three scholars state: “the problem is this: this news story has now entered the pubic record, and is being accepted as true, without support by the evidence. A part of Canadian history has been changed without verification; this fact in itself must be a cause for concern for all of us.”

Kazimi challenged The Tyee news platform about an article it published that repeated this tale of Indigenous aid. In response, on February 23, 2021, The Tyee published This Mural Tells a Beautiful Tale of Cultural Solidarity. But Did It Really Happen? After reviewing Indigenous and Punjabi oral history sources, the reporter notes that the only oral history reference is from a “local writer known for his poetry”, Nadeem Parmar. Parmar had heard a story from the late Giani Kesar Singh, who told Parmar of “Indigenous people in ‘small boats’ had come up to the ship to sell fish and other goods, drawn to the ‘circus’ of an event”. Reporter Christopher Cheung writes that “there was no mention of whether the Indigenous paddlers offered aid to the passengers.” In The Tyee story the curator of the mural project referred to this story as being a “highly symbolic and imaginative piece.” Cheung received no response to his inquiries to two Musqueam Elders “as well as two members of the First Nation’s archives and research department”.

This “imaginative” mural art from 2019 has found its way into a May 2021 city produced video and the 2023 city report. This story is now taking on the force of being history. Rungh News first reported the problems related to this story on June 3, 2021 in Vancouver City Council Remembers and Forgets in Komagata Maru Apology.

Rungh News asked the City of Vancouver if it would amend the 2023 report or the 2023 proclamation. Bayer on the behalf of the city wrote, “At this time, the City of Vancouver will not be making an amendment to the report or proclamation.” Bayer did not advise if Mayor Ken Sim and Vancouver City Council were told about the problems with the report and if they refused to amend it.

Note: Rungh has an Initiative, Komagata Maru: Pasts, Presents, Futures which provides more information.