A Scattering of Seeds: The Creation of Canada
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PASSAGE FROM INDIA
Immigration History
Obstacles

Like many Indian immigrants who came to Canada at the turn of the century, Bagga Singh came across the United States border, forced to manoeuvre around the check posts and immigration laws that were designed to keep people like him out. Admission of Indian emigrants to Canada had gone unrestricted until 1908 when a ban was imposed on all Asian immigration.

Then Labour Minister Mackenzie King claimed, "The Hindu is not suited to the climate of this country." In 1909 the government of British Columbia took away the rights of Indians to vote - a right that should have been guaranteed by the fact that they were British subjects, like all other Canadians(8).

In 1914, the Indian community faced an insurmountable challenge with the arrival of a shipload of Sikh immigrants. The Komagata Maru was a freighter from Japan carrying 376 men from the Punjab, mostly Sikhs wanting to immigrate. At the time, an order-in-council required East Indians to come to Canada by continuous passage from India. Clearly, the law had been designed to keep East Indians out, given the fact that no steamships at the time provided direct service between the two countries. When the Komagata Maru arrived in Vancouver, most of the passengers were detained on board. They waited 2 months while immigration officials and leaders from the Indian Canadian community negotiated their status. In the end, the cause was lost in the Court of Appeal and the freighter was forced to return. It was a crushing defeat for both the passengers and the Indian Canadian community(9).

Indian Canadians faced pervasive discrimination in Canadian society. Without the right to vote they could no longer enter professions, get government contracts or good jobs. For decades, Indians like Bagga Singh were paid less than white men for the same work. Despite the hardships, Canada still offered better opportunities than India, and hard work did pay off. When the labour movement promised equality and better working conditions in the saw mills, Indians joined up. The unions demanded equality not only in the workplace but outside as well - where Indians encountered "Whites Only" signs at theatres and restaurants, and resistance against them purchasing homes in certain areas.

Even if they'd been allowed to buy homes, they would have been empty most of the time. Indian families were rarely allowed to join their men in Canada. The Indian community, 6,000 strong, was primarily a bachelor society. It wasn't until the 1920s that wives and children of legal Sikh residents were finally allowed to enter the country. Bagga Singh had left behind a young wife and two baby girls when he departed Indian. It wasn't until 1931 that Bagga Singh's wife Harkaur joined her husband in Canada(10).

In 1947, fifty years after their arrival in Canada, Indian were finally given the right to vote. Shortly after, in the 1950s, the immigration ban was lifted and immigration resumed(11).

Endnotes:

8-10 - The 1998 Canadian & World Encyclopedia
(McClelland & Stewart, Toronto, 1998).

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