THE ADVOCATE 539
VOL. 77 PART 4 JULY 2019
“A GRAND SCENE ON A BLUE STAGE”1
By Ludmila B. Herbst, Q.C.
As detailed in Part I of this article, published in the May 2019 issue
of the Advocate, in May 1914 the Komagata Maru arrived in Vancouver
harbour, carrying 376 passengers of Punjabi origin. Federal
officials resisted bringing passengers (apart from about 20
who had been in British Columbia before) onshore and indeed would not
even allow the Komagata Maru to dock, instead leaving it anchored “in the
stream” and guarded by patrol boats. Ultimately they agreed with Joseph
Edward Bird, counsel engaged by the “Shore Committee” to act on the passengers’
behalf, to a test case in the B.C. Court of Appeal to determine whether
exclusionary orders-in-council that the federal government had made since
1908 under the Immigration Act barred the passengers’ admission. On July 6,
1914, all five of the Court of Appeal’s judges at the time found against the passenger,
Munshi Singh, whose case had been put forward.
Part II of this article addresses the events that unfolded after this decision.
REACTION TO THE COURT OF APPEAL’S DECISION
It was left to Bird to communicate the Court of Appeal’s decision to the
Komagata Maru’s tired passengers. Consistent with the obstacles that federal
officials had put in his way since May 1914, as in the past Bird had to
communicate with the passengers publicly across the water. Bird yelled out
the news of the court decision while standing on the top deck of an immigration
The next day, Bird returned to the harbour and finally was allowed to
board the Komagata Maru, for his first private meeting with Gurdit Singh.
As described in Part I, Gurdit Singh was the “bewhiskered patriarch”2 who
had chartered the Komagata Maru in Hong Kong and sold tickets to South
Asian passengers for the purpose of bringing them to Canada to confirm
Canada’s position on South Asian entry; had this foray been successful, he
may also have been looking ahead to establish a regular steamer service
across the Pacific.