In some ways, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s apology today in the House of Commons for the Komagata Maru incident closed a chapter on one of British Columbia’s most abhorrent acts of racism.
But history is never that clear cut.
For the last 53 years, a federal building in the heart of Vancouver has been named for the local politician most responsible for the decision to bar 350 people – most of them Sikhs from India – from entering Canada.
The Harry Stevens Building sits at Quebec Street and East 10th Avenue, a non-descript structure built in 1963, now home to Service Canada.
“One of Canada’s outstanding public servants, the honourable Henry Herbert Stevens was a Member of Parliament for thirty years and served with distinction in various cabinet portfolios,” the plaque in the building’s lobby reads.
Stevens was an MP from 1911 to 1940, a cabinet minister in the Conservative Party governments of Arthur Meighen and R. B. Bennett, and was Chairman of the Vancouver Board of Trade in his post-political career.
In 1914 he was just a backbench MP for the riding of Vancouver City – but historical accounts say Stevens was a key figure in the decision to bar the Komagata Maru from docking, directly working with the immigration office to prevent a positive resolution for the refugees.
“As the immigration staff in Vancouver could see, Stevens was the man making the decisions,” wrote Hugh J. M. Johnston in The Voyage of the Komagata Maru: The Sikh Challenge to Canada’s Colour Bar.
READ MORE: What was the Komagata Maru incident and why does it matter?
“Asian immigration was his leading issue. When he spoke for the first time in Parliament, he directed his time to the Asian threat to Canada’s future as ‘a white man’s country.’”
Most infamously, Stevens said “we cannot hope to preserve the national type if we allow Asiatics to enter Canada in any numbers” in 1914 – the same year as the Komagata Maru incident.
Stevens is just one of two politicians from Vancouver to have a federal building named after them. The other is James Sinclair, former Minister of Fisheries – and Justin Trudeau’s grandfather.
Raj Toor, whose grandfather was on the Komagata Maru, said he would mention the situation to Trudeau.
In 2014, school board trustees in New Westminster decided to reverse a decision to name a new middle school after former premier John Robson because of his anti-Chinese views.
Stripping the name from a federal building would be without precedent in B.C., but Premier Christy Clark said if the local Indo-Canadian community wants that dialogue, it should be considered.
“I think it’s painful for a lot of people who are descendants of those who were turned away to see that. At the same time, as I said, we need to remember the good and the bad.”