Race, economic status and citizenship rights: Revisiting the formation of the South Asian Diaspora in Canada (c.1900-1920)

This paper will reconsider the debates and controversies that were triggered by the growth of a South Asian diaspora in Canada during the first two decades of the 20th century. Taking into account Indian, Canadian as well as British voices, it will focus in particular on the 1914 voyage of the Japanese steamship Komagata-maru to Vancouver. The ship was denied entry by the Government of Canada and 350 of the British Indian passengers on board were eventually sent back, while 24 who could prove that they were carrying significant cash reserves could enter the country. This episode provides a significant case of precedence for the discrimination against migrants on the basis of their economic status, which debunked the inclusivist discourse of imperial citizenship as mere rhetoric. The Komagata Maru incident continued to shape imaginings of belonging and political debates about citizenship rights for the subsequent century, culminating in Canadian Prime Minister much publicized ‘full apology’ offered to representatives of the South Asian diaspora in the country in May 2016.