Date: 2012-06-22 14:23:47
Category: all categories
Metatags: Immigrant, Komagata Maru, Loss, Racism, Resilience, Sikh, Muslim, Indian, South Asian, Toronto, Punjabi,
7.30 pm on 29th May 2012 and the Main Ballroom at the Gladstone Hotel downtown was already packed with around a hundred and thirty people for the launch of Ali Kazimi’s book ’Undesirables: White Canada and Komagata Maru’. Organized by This is Not a Reading Series (TINARS) and co-sponsored by CASSA, amongst others, the launch had the author presenting his book through slides, anecdotal evidence and an impressive breadth of research. A conversation with Audrey Macklin, Professor of Law at the University of Toronto and a prominent human rights activist provided a meaningful discussion on the book, including issues of race and racism (topics that aren’t discussed very openly but which impact the communities thus affected),followed by a Q & A session with the audience.
Ali Kazimi, who arrived in Canada in 1983 from Delhi, India as a film studies student is well known for his exploration of the Komagata Maru episode, a rather sordid chapter in Canadian history. His research culminated in a documentary ‘Continuous Journey’ in 2004, taking its name from the regulation that stipulated that any person arriving to Canada would only be allowed in if they had a through ticket and had travelled in a continuous journey to Canada. The feature documentary has since then won many awards, including one at the prestigious Hot Docs Festival in Toronto in 2004.
The book ’Undesirables ‘ is a follow up to that story, and is not just a commentary on the pictures which serve as a visual history of this infamous episode. Rather, it’s the author’s take on the subtext of this event, and its relevance in today’s multicultural Canada that makes the book so fascinating. There are many previously unpublished photographs, some of which were shown by the author in his presentation, and these depict the early social life of the South Asian community in Vancouver. One of my favourites is that of two Sikh wrestlers in loincloths, being watched by an audience of fellow Sikhs in three-piece suits and fob watches. There are headlines from the newspapers of the day, and these glimpses into Canadian history make ‘Undesirables’ a compelling and valuable resource.
In the light of CASSA’s Brown Canada project, the book provides affirmation of the need to learn from the past. In making the connection with what happened on the shores of Vancouver nearly a hundred years ago and the reaction to the arrival of a shipload of Tamil refugees recently, the author reminded us why it’s so important not just to document history but to see its relevance in modern times. As a South Asian, I know that the struggle for identity and acceptance still continues, so Komagata Maru is a valid reference point in the history of South Asians in Canada.
Krittika Ghosh, Outreach Coordinator for the Brown Canada project, who was at the launch along with Anita Khanna of CASSA, was vocal in her views when asked about the relevance of the Komagata Maru episode.“The Komagata Maru is only one example of the enforcement of exclusionary “White Canada” immigration policy and is not an isolated ‘incident’. There have been many other historical and contemporary policies of exclusion of immigrants and refugees, many of whom who are racialized. Examples of such policies include the Chinese Head Tax law, the internment of Japanese-Canadians during World War II and the detainment of 491 Tamil asylum seekers from Sri Lanka in 2010 upon their arrival in British Columbia aboard the MV Sun Sea.” She also pointed out that the Komagata Maru is also an example of the resilience of the South Asian community, both within Canada and those on the boat, who challenged the discriminatory Canadian immigration policies.
As for the effectiveness of Kazimi’s book as a learning resource, she opined that Ali Kazimi's "Undesirables" is essential reading to learn about the historical struggles of South Asians attempting to immigrate to Canada, through an analysis of historical documents, photographs, and interviews. It is also provides an incredible analysis of Canada's attempt to build a "White Canada" while discriminating against the unwanted "others".
Since the Brown Canada project also focuses on the Komagata Maru episode as the starting point in the history of South Asian peoples in Canada, the book ‘Undesirables’ is of particular interest to me as a volunteer historian. This bit of history has a subtext that still endures, and carries a message that was well appreciated by the audience at the book launch.