Abbotsford city council has requested that staff prepare a report into a request to rename a city street in memory of the victims of the 1914 Komagata Maru incident that resulted in the deaths of 20 citizens of India.
Council at its executive meeting on Feb. 22 was unanimous in its support of such a move, but the protocol in place to rename streets requires a staff report.
The report will look at why the name “Fairlane” was initially chosen, and the costs of renaming it.
But councillors said if Fairlane doesn’t work for the renaming, another street should be chosen.
The 1914 incident involved the Japanese steamship Komagata Maru, on which 376 people from Punjab Province in British India attempted to immigrate to Canada, landing in Vancouver in May of that year.
Most were denied entry and, for 63 days, the passengers stayed on the ship with dwindling food and water, and were forced to return to India.
Within hours of disembarking, 20 of the passengers were killed in an encounter with British Indian police and troops.
Abbotsford resident Lakhwinder Jhaj appeared by video to make the street-renaming request. She told council that Surrey has renamed one of its streets – 75A Avenue – “Komagata Maru,” while there is a monument at Coal Harbour in Vancouver and storyboard signs at Social Heart Plaza in Delta.
Jhaj said doing something similar in Abbotsford would be “a positive declaration of moving forward.”
She said it makes sense to rename Fairlane Street because it borders the Gur Sikh Gurdwara (temple), which, as North America’s oldest gurdwara, has been designated a national historic site.
Jhaj said the South Asian community would be “honoured and humbled” to have a street named in memory of the Komagata Maru.
Abbotsford West MLA Mike de Jong, also appearing by video, backed Jhaj’s request. He introduced a motion in the House that resulted in a formal apology about the Komagata Maru incident from the B.C. government in May 2008.
He said there are “direct connections” between the 1914 incident and Abbotsford, whose citizens were among those fighting in support of the passengers stuck aboard the ship.
“The connection between the pioneers that are today recognized as having contributed so much to build Abbotsford over the last century and the pioneers that never were, because they weren’t allowed in the country, is a very real and tangible one,” he said.
Coun. Kelly Chahal said the Komagata Maru incident is “something we should never forget.” She said renaming a street can help “continue the conversation,” and there should be more consideration of such gestures in the future as new development occurs.
Coun. Patricia Ross said it is important that the incident is remembered and the people honoured.
“Also, because it creates discussions about racism and why this happened, and what’s happening today and how we can all do better,” she said.
Mayor Henry Braun said such an acknowledgment is overdue.
“This is a significant event, and it’s been recognized across Canada and British Columbia, and I think we for sure need to do this as well,” he said.
Surrey resident Raj Singh Toor, vice-president of the Descendants of the Komagata Maru Society, said on Friday (Feb. 26) that he was surprised to see that the matter had come before council.
Toor first approached the city two years ago and has had ongoing communication requesting that a street or park in Abbotsford be named in memory of the victims of the Komagata Maru incident.
“This would be greatly appreciated, not only by descendants of the passengers, and by all Sikhs in Canada, but by every Canadian who believes in treating all humans with dignity and respect,” he wrote in an email dated Feb. 25, 2019.
Toor, whose grandfather was among those aboard the Komagata Maru, said many Abbotsford residents helped give food, water and medications to passengers. They also contributed in trying to lease the ship in an attempt to keep it from being sent back to India, he said.
An email from the city indicated that he would be invited to speak before council, and Toor said he is disappointed that did not happen. But he said he is thankful that the victims of the Komagata Maru will be recognized in Abbotsford.