A version of this story appeared on the front page of The Globe and Mail on Saturday May 24th.
Growing up as a Sikh immigrant from India’s Punjab in Vancouver, Lt.Col. Harjit Sajjan knew the story of the Komagata Maru well.
The tale of the ship carrying 376 passengers, mostly Sikhs, from the Punjab to Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet – only to be turned away due to exclusionary immigration policies – left a mark on Sajjan.
“We were used to these types of stories,” Lt.Col. Sajjan said in a recent interview. “Back then there was a lot of direct racism so we thought it was normal that this type of incident could happen.”
On May 23, 1914, when the overcrowded Komagata Maru arrived in Vancouver, it was refused docking and remained at anchor in Coal Harbour during a two-month stalemate.
The Premier of British Columbia at the time, Sir Richard McBride, notoriously declared that “to admit Orientals in large numbers would mean the end, the extinction of the white people. And we always have in mind the necessity of keeping this a white man’s country.”
On July 23, troops from the British Columbia Regiment (Duke of Connaught’s Own), on orders from the federal government, mobilized and forced the Komagata Maru out of the harbor in a show of military force. Upon the ship’s return to India, 19 passengers were shot dead and more than 200 were jailed.
The commanding officer of the B.C. Regiment in 1914 was Lt.Col. H.D. Hulme. One-hundred years later, the regiment’s commanding officer is Lt.Col. Harjit Sajjan, the first Sikh to head a Canadian regiment as commanding officer.
It should not be considered strange that a young turbaned Sikh would decide to join the Canadian Armed Forces. Sikhs piously believe in service – to both community and God – and have a historic reputation for being fearless and devoted soldiers.
But for Sajjan, this desire to serve was first met with skepticism.
“When I was growing up, I didn’t even think I was allowed to join the military,” Lt.Col. Sajjan said. “When I first joined there was a lot of racism in the armed forces. One unit didn’t even accept me.”
It was when Sajjan landed at the green front doors of the historic Beatty Street Drill Hall – the home of Western Canada’s oldest military unit – that he found acceptance.
The recruiting officer at the B.C. Regiment when Sajjan joined in 1989 was Chinese Canadian. He signed up Sajjan right away.
The B.C. Regiment has a history of accepting recruits no matter their background, Sajjan said. Today it is one of the most diverse regiments in Canada.
Diversity in the armed forces is no longer about “political correctness,” but is an “operational necessity,” Sajjan said.
During his three tours in Afghanistan, Sajjan proved exactly how much of a “necessity” diversity is.
It was while working in the Vancouver police department’s gang crime unit that Sajjan took leave to join the 1st Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment Battle Group in Kandahar.
Sajjan encouraged cross-cultural understanding and emphasized the importance of respecting Afghan tribal culture. Through his approach, he was able to engage with prominent Afghan tribal leaders and collect valuable intelligence.
Despite Sajjan’s courage in the battlefield and ingenuity for intelligence gathering, many in the coalition assumed that because he wore a turban and was bearded he was a “cultural advisor.”
This irritated Sajjan; however, his unique capacities didn’t go unnoticed by his seniors.
Former task force commander Brig.-Gen. David Fraser wrote that Sajjan was “the single best intelligence asset in theatre and his hard work, personal bravery, and dogged determination undoubtedly saved a multitude of coalition lives.”
When Sajjan joined the B.C. Regiment, he was familiar with the unit’s involvement in the Komagata Maru incident.
“Our regiment remembers it as a black mark on our history,” LtCol. Sajjan said. “It shouldn’t have happened.”
But Sajjan sees his historic promotion to commanding officer of the regiment in 2011 as evidence of progress. For Sajjan and the rest of the regiment, the Komagata Maru has become a historical milestone from which we can measure change.
“There are scars on our history, but we can’t dwell on that past, and we can’t change it. We must learn from it,” LtCol. Sajjan said. “The best way to learn from it is to ask ourselves if we’ve made change… and we have made change. Me sitting here is that one greatest example of it.”