Of Ships and Racism, Book Launch of ‘Undesirables’

By Rana Khan @ranafkhan

This Is Not A Reading Series (TINAR) is well known for its appreciation of fine writing, and for its literary events which seek to investigate the creative process through everything but reading. On May 29th, it organized the book launch of author and documentary filmmaker Ali Kazimi’s ‘Undesirables: White Canada and the Komagata Maru’. The book is a pictorial history of this infamous episode of Canadian History (the subject of  Kazimi’s award-winning documentary  ‘Continuous Journey’ in 2004), and  while some may be tempted to dismiss it as a coffee-table book, its theme of racism has contemporary parallels in context of the immigration and refugee policy changes being carried out by the present government.

Photo:Courtesy of 'This is Not A Reading Series'

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  There are many previously unpublished photographs, some of which were shown by the author in his presentation, and these depict the early social life of the South Asian community in Vancouver.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 it’s these glimpses into Canadian history is what makes ‘Undesirables’ so valuable as a resource.

Doors opened at 7 pm, and by 7.30 the Main Ballroom at the artsy Gladstone Hotel downtown was already filled to capacity. It was a very appreciative audience , and the author’s presentation ,laced with humor and a compelling honesty ,really set the tone for an evening of great discussion. The slides which accompanied the presentation were fascinating, and a quick recap of this historical event would be in order here to help understand the keen interest in the book.

In May 1914, the Komagata Maru, a Japanese ship carrying 376 immigrants (mostly Sikh but some Hindus and Muslims too) from British India tried to land in Vancouver harbor. They were denied permission, and there was a stand-off with Canadian immigration officials for two months before the ship and its passengers were forced to turn away. The ‘Continuous Journey’ regulation was held as the legal justification for doing so, and some of the passengers were killed by British soldiers after its arrival back in Calcutta in a confrontation which arose out of the charges of sedition against the British rule.

The regulation stipulating that immigrants could only arrive in Canada via a direct journey from one’s country of origin  was effectively a mechanism for keeping so-called ‘undesirables’ out and in maintaining Canada’s status as a white settler society in the early 1900s. The question of racism and the inherent lessons of the Komagata Maru were taken up more fully in the conversation between the author and Ms. Audrey Macklin, Professor of Law at the University of Toronto and a campaigner for social justice herself.

A lively Q & A session followed, and amongst the participants from the audience was Pardeep Nagra, the Canadian Sikh boxer. The various comments/questions revealed that there is a great need for a much wider discussion on these issues, and  Niki,a member of the audience, explained her concerns that a lot of young South Asians don’t even know about this bit of history. She herself had studied about it only as an undergrad and did independent research as she felt affected by it, both personally and collectively.

The book signing had people lined up, and with an opportunity to talk to the author himself, the lines moved very slowly indeed. It was well after 10pm that the evening finally came to a close, but rest assured that the reverberations from the book will continue for quite some time.


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  1. Tania Das Gupta

    I enjoyed reading this article about the booklaunch.
    The parallels with today’s policy around refugee claimants, i.e. that they need to arrive directly without touching other “safe” countries, is eerily similar to the’Continuous Journey’ stipulation.

    The thing about the Komagatamaru case is that the Sikh passengers had in fact come via continuous journey but they were still sent back to India because Canada did not want them due to their race.

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