Panama Canal as the Centre of Immigration

2017 (4 pages)
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Immigration is at the foundation of our society today, almost every country has citizens who didn’t originate from that country. Canada, specifically, is known and celebrated for its diversity, yet it once wasn’t so accepting of immigrants. For years Canada viewed itself as a “White Man’s Country”, setting themselves apart as more superior because of this trait. This superiority complex was at the head of a theory known as Orientalism, which distinguishes the white man as wise and the person of colour as the savage. Canada’s Immigration Act reflected these ideologies through its specious policies that were used to undermine the immigrant, specifically in the case of the Asian immigrant in the late 1880’s and early 1900’s. Two such instances in Canada’s history reflect its racist ideology, the Panama Maru and Komagata Maru, who were victims of one of Canada’s most aggressive Immigration Acts, which contained the most prominent regulation of continuous journey. The Panama Maru in 1913 and Komagata Maru in 1914 were both ships from Hong Kong carrying mainly South Asian immigrants from British India, who hoped to start a new life in Canada. After many trials and tribulations, the Panama Maru were successfully allowed into Canada, yet in hindsight, this success would bring about the biggest challenge for the Komagata Maru, unmasking the hateful rhetoric embedded within Canadian society. The Panama Maru made the anti-Asian goal of the continuous journey clause more obvious and thus played a more significant role than the Komagata Maru in exposing Canada’s discriminatory immigration policy.

Immigration within a country plays a significant role in securing gains for the economy, through labour and capital, but this doesn’t always mean a “free for all” entry. Specific policies of immigration go beyond the lure of financial benefits and reflect the attitudes of a government and the citizenry of the country at that time. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, Canada was seeing an influx of immigration from Asia which attracted mass amounts of negativity from the predominantly white population whose racism and fear of competition in the labour force led to hateful rhetoric. One could simply look at immigration as described above, a means of securing financial capital, the few rich elites did, but the majority saw it as potential destruction of white national unity and the labour force. However, they failed to see that coexisting would ultimately be for the betterment of Canada, because what they didn’t realize was that they and the Asian immigrants both wanted the same things, to thrive in their occupations and be an integral part of Canada. Sadly, during 1908, there was clear distinction made between “white national unity” and national unity when the Laurier government caved into pressure from ongoing Anti – Asian riots, and established immigration policies that deceptively inhibited immigration from Asia.

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The Immigration Act and its deceptive policies were well established in Canada, with many hoping it would be a silent deterrence to many immigrants. But what one must realize is that when a person chooses to become an immigrant, he has already faced more struggle in his home country and wouldn’t choose new struggle unless he knew it to be beneficial. Thus, came the Panama Maru in October 17, 1913, onto the shores of British Columbia with 56 passengers of Indian origin, their arrival would become one of the biggest challenges to the immigration policies. A few returning passengers on the Panama Maru were allowed in, while the majority of them were detained and went through further examination. It is here when we see firsthand, the applications of the immigration policies that many hoped would serve as deterrence alone. The passengers were subject to deportation on the violation of two orders in council, of continuous journey (P.C. 920) and monetary requirements (P.C. 926). Knowing very well that continuous journey was impossible for the immigrants because they were not provided with through tickets to Canada and had to stop over in Japan, the regulations were clearly intended to make the path of Asian immigrants to Canada as difficult as possible. Many immigration officials maintained that the regulations applied to everyone entering Canada, but it became clear in statements made by officials that it was “absolutely prohibitive in its terms but it is only intended to enforce it strictly against really undesirable immigrants.” The basis of the Immigration Act however was still designed for the incoming of immigrants therefore the officials couldn’t easily get away with their anti - Asian motives. The passengers of the Panama Maru used the law to fight for the right to stay, because the Immigration Act wasn’t just a tool that the officials could use to yield in their favor, it also applied to them. The passengers succeeded in their appeal to the courts through Joseph Edward Bird, who found flaws in the continuous journey regulation and Chief Justice Gordon Hunter who later also found issues with the specific race and monetary requirements, stating that they went against the foundation of the Immigration Act itself. The very moment that the 39 passengers of the Panama Maru were officially allowed onto Canadian soil was a victory for fellow Indians and an eyeopener for the Canadian government. An eyeopener that would lead to one of the greatest showdown’s in Canadian history.

The successful legal battle and arrival of the Panama Maru became the biggest threat to the governments vision of a “White Man’s Country”. Acting solely to protect the exclusionary intentions of the regulations they created, the government quickly amended them so they would abide by the Immigration Act. One of the biggest assertions of colonialism was that all British subjects were equal within the empire, therefore Canada had to be careful in the way they approached their exclusion. There had to be a concealed policy of exclusion which could be denied if ever brought up. While the Canadian government hardened their policies, many in British India, such as Gurdit Singh Sirhali, hardened their stance on the victory, seeing it as an opportunity and convincing themselves that the courts would be in their favor as they were for the Panama Maru. Thus, the Komagata Maru arrived on the shores of British Columbia from Hong Kong on May 23, 1914, carrying 376 passengers who were mostly from British India. The passengers had the intention of challenging the continuous journey regulation and strongly believed that they would be heard as British subjects and they too would be successful like the Panama Maru. This very success that the passengers of the Komagata Maru kept their hopes on, was the biggest threat to the government and lead to concrete policies that they would make sure the law couldn’t fight against. The passengers were not allowed ashore, being in violation of the order in council of the continuous journey and like the Panama Maru, appealed in the court with the help of Joseph Edward Bird. However, with rising fear among the public and the government of being overrun by foreigners, even Bird couldn’t help them. The racism in the policies and within Canada became much more apparent and assertive, when over top of the ridiculous continuous journey regulation, the passengers of the Komagata Maru were threatened to choose between life or death, starved, illegally tested for disease, and faced many more inhumane treatment because like last time, the rulings of the court wouldn’t suffice. Eventually, being turned away after about 2 months, Gurdit Singh Sirhali and his fellow passengers were clear on one thing, that they were not equal under the British Empire; the Canadian public made this clear, but the Immigration Act confirmed it.

At the heart of the exclusionary policies was the theory of Orientalism, that Western Society was different from Eastern society, in their culture, in their ideals and their way of life. Culture, ideals and way of life seem like fairly understandable differences but in reality, Orientalism stretched these terms further, referring to the people of Eastern society as Orients who were uncivilized, animal- like beings that couldn’t function within Western Society. The Canadian government and its officials used this same justification in the development of their policies, seeing Asian immigrants as incapable of adapting to Canadian society because of their customs and traditions. “The “people, customs,” and, above all, the 'mind' of those from Asia, all of which early twentieth-century politicians and theorists interpreted as an intractable philosophical affront to the values of Western civilization.” With the arrival of the Panama Maru, this theory was simply pushed in the orders in councils and was less evident in public opinion, however when they were finally accepted, this theory was jeopardized. To ensure that a case like the Panama Maru wouldn’t occur again, much stricter immigration policies were created, in order to secure Canada as a “White Man’s Country”. Sadly, the passengers of the Komagata Maru were at the front of the xenophobic views of the public and would suffer the greatest at the expense of a Canada they hoped to settle in and call home. Home was the furthest away from how the immigrants would define Canada after all the hate, propaganda and lies that were spread about them to the public. However, the biggest disappointment was their denial by Canada’s courts, who after the Panama Maru incident, the government wouldn’t even let falter. The appeal for habeas corpus that was granted for the Panama Maru was denied for some passengers like Munshi Singh on the Komagata Maru, validating the now hardened discriminatory immigration policies. All in all, Orientalism was a theory that was evident in both cases but was fortified in the case of the Komagata Maru. If it weren’t for the paranoia that the Panama Maru’s acceptance caused, the passengers of the Komagata Maru wouldn’t have been so rigorously denied basic human rights on the justification of being “unsuited” for Western society.

With the fear of their vison of a “White Man’s Country” being jeopardized after the allowance of the Komagata Maru, many immigration officials such as G.L. Milne weren’t just trying to find violations in terms of the continuous journey clause or monetary requirements, now they were looking much deeper. Specifically, into the idea of immigrants being diseased and potentially spreading their diseases to Canadians. During the time of the Panama Maru, Milne sought to prove that passengers had hookworm disease by secretly testing a few of them, unfortunately his testing wasn’t justification enough for the deportation of the passengers. Following this incident Milne remained persistent about the importance of rigorous testing, stating “I have no doubt that we would find 90% of Asiatics, & particularly Hindus, infested with this disease... You will, therefore, see that if we were to proceed on these lines, 90% were able to reject 90% of these people, the object of the government would be attained.

The rejection of immigrants under this cause would not be followed by so much criticism by the general public; in fact, on the other hand, it would appeal to them strongly as a measure for the protection of the public health.” Milne might have faltered during the time of the Panama Maru, but officials such as W.J. Roche and H.H. Stevens were prepared to put their disease argument in front of the courts upon the Komagata Maru’s arrival at the shore. With the approval of the Canadian government, doctors rigorously tested the passengers for hookworm, but many doctors found that the passengers were even more healthy and cleanly than some European immigrants. Unfortunately, the officials weren’t able to go past their extremely racist rhetoric regarding Asian immigrants and continued testing, until the courts ruled the passenger’s deportation on the basis of violating the continuous journey clause. When even Canada’s own courts found the evidence inadmissible and irrelevant, many immigration officials continued testing for disease out of paranoia of being taking over by “Orients” after already accepting the Panama Maru. When one has to go to great lengths to prove that right is wrong, he has been so clouded by his racism that even if all the evidence was in front of him, he would still find a way to blame the immigrant.

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