Sunday, August 03, 2008

Komagata Maru: Why Apologize?

The Sikh community in B.C. has been wanting an apology for some time now for an incident that happened in 1910. Apparently Canada had its own Jim Crow laws to prevent Asiatic people from immigrating to Canada.

A law was specifically written requiring people to immigrate to Canada directly from their home countries. Although the law didn't specifically mention people from India, the effect of it was to make it very difficult for Indians to immigrate to Canada. No one seems to argue the racist intent of the law. The argument is about what to do about an incident set up in protest to it.

The Komagata Maru was chartered from Hong Kong specifically to challenge this law. After sitting in dock for weeks, it was forced to return to India. Authorities there attempted to force it to return to Punjab although the passengers wanted to stay in Calcutta. A riot ensued in which some 20 people were killed.

And so Canada has apologized.

But the Sikh community (and you should know better than to trust anyone speaking on behalf of a "community") doesn't like the apology. Apparently the crux of the matter was that the apology was not delivered in the House of Commons. The writer of the article assumes this based on the following comment from a "Sikh community leader":
“We were expecting the prime minister of Canada to do the right thing. The right thing was … like the Chinese head tax,” said Mr. Toor.

Now I'll grant that it's possible that Mr. Toor was referring to the greater importance of an apology delivered in the House of Commons. Possibly. If that were the case I would think that, as a human being you wouldn't lead with, “The apology was unacceptable.” An appropriate response would be more polite than kicking a man who is apologizing to you. Something like, "We appreciate this apology and ask that it be repeated formally in the House of Commons".

That's what a human being might do and it's always possible that Mr. Toor had his remarks taken out of context.

There's another possibility because there's another difference between the apology for the Chinese Head Tax and this more recent apology: money.

When the government apologized to the Chinese who had suffered the Head Tax, it paid $20 000 to the few survivors or their surviving spouses. Is this what the Sikh community really wants? Is this what Mr. Toor meant?

I have bad news. That's not why we have apologies.

Apologies have three parts: saying it; attoning for it; making sure it doesn't happen again. In the legal arena, the "atoning for it" is meant to ensure that it doesn't happen again. In the human arena the apology is supposed to be done with sincerity such that the victims - and others like them - believe the offender is truly sorry.

The Chinese Head Tax was repaid symbolically, as an apology for - and a symbol of awareness of - our racist past. But since we no longer charge a Head Tax to Chinese people, the "making sure it doesn't happen again" part is already done. The same goes for those rejected for immigration in the Komagata Maru incident. It happened in 1910. Those people are all dead. There will be no compensation to any survivors or spouses. It was a sad, stupid thing, but it's not something anyone alive was responsible for or victimized by.

Hopefully Mr. Toor was simply misquoted to appear rude and he was not actually making the lack of payment (to descendants? to "community groups"?) an issue.

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