For four years, Raj Singh Toor has campaigned to have a street in Vancouver renamed to commemorate the Komagata Maru incident of 1914.
As the grandson of one of the passengers aboard the Japanese steamship, which was turned away from Vancouver’s harbour in a move rooted in racism, Toor hoped Tuesday would be the end of the campaign.
But the vice-president of the Descendants of the Komagata Maru Society left city hall disappointed that no commitment was made by city council to honour his request that a portion of Main Street between 49th Avenue and Southeast Marine Drive be renamed Komagata Maru Street or Drive.
“The council can do this, and could have done it today, but the delay is disappointing for me and the community,” said Toor after council passed a recommendation to consider a secondary street instead of the Main Street stretch.
Toor said Main Street was chosen by community members because of its connection to South Asian businesses, the city’s largest South Asian population, its proximity to the Ross Street temple and the annual Vaisakhi Parade.
'Important historical recognition'
Where that secondary street will be and when it will be renamed is an open question. But Sandra Singh, the city’s general manager of arts, culture and community services, told Vancouver Is Awesome that work is being done to identify a street.
“Yes, that's going to happen,” Singh said. “And that was one of the ongoing actions that we highlighted for council that we plan to continue to work on. The actual street location still needs to be determined in consultation with community as well as engineering services.”
Singh couldn’t provide a time frame, but said the city recognizes that “it's important for communities to see themselves in the landscape and in the public realm of the city. So we do recognize it as both an important historical recognition and ongoing cultural recognition.”
Mayor Kennedy Stewart said having a portion of Main Street renamed Komagata Maru Street would be “extremely confusing” for people and that it didn’t meet the “technical hurdle” of naming or renaming a street in Vancouver.
“So if you look at engineering and all the other reports that say it's very difficult, for example, for firefighters to find addresses, Google Maps and all that kind of stuff to rename a part of a major street,” said Stewart, noting renaming a street to commemorate the Komagata Maru incident is more than symbolic and would require residents to change the street name on their personal identification, including driver’s licences.
“So that's why we've been working with the community to find a secondary street.”
Surrey has Komagata Maru Way
For Toor, the answers aren’t good enough, he said, noting he requested four years ago that a street be named or renamed in Vancouver after the Komagata Maru incident. He pointed out it only took Surrey one year to rename 75A Avenue to Komagata Maru Way, which occurred in 2019.
“I don't know how long it will take them here in Vancouver, but I do think they will do it,” he said, emphasizing the importance of publicly commemorating a dark period in the city and country’s history.
In his speech to council, Toor said: “We can't undo the past but we can move forward and leave a legacy for future generations by educating them about the past.”
Last year, council formally apologized for injustices and discrimination against the 376 passengers travelling on board the Komagata Maru. Council also declared May 23, 2021 as the first Komagata Maru Remembrance Day to be marked by the City of Vancouver.
Baba Puran Singh Janetpura
Toor’s grandfather Baba Puran Singh Janetpura was 24 years old when he boarded the Komagata Maru. He was fluent in English and had plans to seek higher education once he arrived in Vancouver.
Instead, he went without food, water or medication, and ended up in clashes with authorities in Vancouver and back home in India, where he was sent to prison. Twenty passengers were shot and killed upon return to India, according to historical accounts of the Komagata Maru incident.
Toor said his grandfather later joined the Indian independence movement, which led to the end of British rule. In 1962, Toor said, his grandfather was honoured by the Indian government for his active role in the independence movement.
“In 1968, my uncle tried to sponsor my grandfather to come to Canada, but he refused and said, ‘No, I'm not going there because I have a painful, bitter memory with Canada,’” said Toor, noting his grandfather died in 1976. “But he believed one day that South Asians would come here and live happily and peacefully.”
Asian Exclusion League
The commitment to name or rename a secondary street in Vancouver was part of a broader set of recommendations approved by council, which seeks to right historical wrongs in the South Asian community.
Those wrongs included the city supporting oppression and denying the right to vote in Vancouver, which directly led to the right to vote federally also being revoked. The city also promoted anti-Asian sentiments, according to a staff report that was before council Tuesday.
“A prominent example that stands out is [then] Vancouver Mayor Alexander Bethune and several city councillors were founding members of Vancouver's Asian Exclusion League, a racist and exclusionary group who publicly promoted its aim to keep oriental immigrants including Japanese, Chinese and South Asians out of British Columbia,” said city social planner Arvinder Bhullar in a presentation to council.
“A crucial part of moving forward is to ensure that past injustices are not repeated in the future, and that all communities can have an equitable future in Vancouver.”