Author Tags: Education, Essentials 2010, Indo-Canadian, Local History


In 1914, some 376 British subjects, including 340 Sikhs, were stranded offshore for two months in the ship Komagata Maru, as they unsuccessfully challenged B.C. immigration policies in Burrard Inlet. The ship had been chartered for $66,000 by Gurdit Singh Sarhali, a Sikh entrepreneur, as a direct challenge to a restrictive policy that required all would-be immigrants from India to take direct passage to Canada—when no such direct passage from India existed. During the impasse, food and water aboard ship diminished and social unrest among the South Asian community of B.C. increased. An attempt to board the ship by 150 armed men, in support of a Canadian immigration official, was rebuffed. It took the arrival of the federal navy vessel H.M.C.S. Rainbow on July 23, 1914, to force the Komagata Maru to leave the city and return to Calcutta.

The stand-off has been documented and examined by Hugh Johnston in The Voyage of the Komagata Maru: The Sikh Challenge to Canada’s Colour Bar (1979). Passing through Vancouver in 1914, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had remarked, “The whole incident seemed to me to be so grotesque—for why should sun-loving Hindoos force themselves upon Canada?” Johnston re-issued the book in 2014 with UBC Press. "This is not just a re-release," said Johnston,"but virtually a new book. How many people get a chance to do a major overhaul on a book thirty-five years after it first appeared and nearly forty years after they started the research? One might question going back to a subject after so long, but I've been asked to do research for a number of projects over the past six or seven years--a projected movie that did not happen, for a museum at the Sikh temple, for a SFU library website, for papers at conferences etc. This has had me digging into the material i collected before 1979 and into what what I have acquired since then. And my perspective has changed over the decades. So has the Sikh community. So this is much more than a light re-write with an introduction."

Alan Dutton, Robert Jarvis, Sohan Sarinder Singh Sangha, Ajmer Rode and Kesar Singh have also written books on the Komagata Maru incident after Sharon Pollock led the way in 1976 with a play about the racist stand-off. In 1990, the Progressive Indo-Canadian Community Services Society also published the proceedings of a Vancouver conference, Beyond the Komagata Maru: Race Relations Today, edited by Alan Dutton. With Tara Singh Bains, Johnston has also published The Four Quarters of the Night: The Life-Journey of an Emigrant Sikh (1995).

British Columbia has been steeped in racism. A chapter of the Ku Klux Klan opened in Vancouver in 1925 and attracted 500 people to a meeting in 1927. It argued for a ban on Oriental immigration and the confiscation of property owned by Asians—laying the groundwork for the government’s expropriation of land and possessions from Japanese-Canadians during WWII.

A classic racist tract is Hilda Glynn-Ward’s fear-mongering novel The Writing on the Wall (1921), published by the Sun Publishing Company. It concludes with Vancouver’s white population dying from typhoid fever contracted from Chinese-grown vegetables and sugar to which local Chinese merchants had purposely added typhoid germs. In this story the Chinese and Japanese remain healthy because they have been “inured to it by countless generations of living without sanitation.”


An SFU history professor emeritus and former president of the Vancouver Historical Society, Johnston has co-authored a biography of Captain James Cook with fellow Simon Fraser University historian Robin Fisher with whom he co-edited a book on Captain George Vancouver. Johnston also edited The Pacific Province: A History of British Columbia, a production of the SFU History Department that was published by Douglas & McIntyre in 1996.

To mark the 75th anniversary of the Komagata Maru incident -- the 1914 stand-off in which 376 British subjects, including 340 Sikhs, were mostly denied entry to Canada and were stranded for two months in the harbour as they unsuccessfully challenged B.C. immigration policies -- Hugh Johnston re-published The Voyage of the Komagata Maru: The Sikh Challenge to Canada's Colour Bar (New Delhi: Oxford, 1979; UBC Press 1989).

It is generally understood that the Komagata Maru had been chartered for $66,000 by Gurdit Singh Sarhali, a Sikh entrepreneur, as a direct challenge to a restrictive policy that required all would-be immigrants from India to take direct passage to Canada—when no such direct passage from India existed. It is seldom noted that another ship carrying potential immigrants from India, the Panama Maru, had successfully docked in Victoria in 1913 during which time 38 of its 56 passengers had been accorded the legal right to remain (after they were sequestered in an immigration building near Ogden Point).

During the impasse of 1914, food and water aboard the Komagata Maru diminished and social unrest among the South Asian community of B.C. increased. An attempt to board the ship by 150 armed men, in support of a Canadian immigration official, was rebuffed. It took the arrival of the federal navy vessel Rainbow to force the embarkation of the Komagatu Maru, on its route back to Calcutta, on July 23, 1914. Passengers had been stranded in the Vancouver harbour for exactly two months. (After the ship was forced to leave port, an immigration officer involved in the impasse was assasinated in the Vancouver courthouse. At least two dozen Komagata Maru passengers were later killed during a clash with authorities when the ship returned to India.)

In 1990 the Progressive Indo-Canadian Community Services Society also published the proceedings of a Vancouver conference, Beyond the Komagata Maru: Race Relations Today, edited by Alan Dutton. With Tara Singh Bains, Johnston, has published The Four Quarters of the Night: The Life-Journey of an Emigrant Sikh (McGill-Queen's University Press, 1995). From 1992 to 2001 Johnston served on the board of the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute that promotes scholarly work and cultural exchanges.

In 2012, Johnston published Jewels of the Qila: The Remarkable Story of an Indo-Canadian Family. According to publicity materials: "This is a story about a remarkable Sikh family and the communities they lived in and supported in both Canada and India. Kapoor Singh Siddoo arrived in British Columbia in 1912 and overcame racial prejudice and legal discrimination to transform himself from labourer to lumber baron. He and his wife, Besant Kaur, fostered in their daughters a vision of service and activism that they fulfilled by establishing a hospital in Punjab and introducing an Indian spiritual tradition to their new home in Canada."

Johnston was educated at the University of Toronto, the University of Western Ontario and King's College at the University of London. He arrived to teach at SFU in 1968, three years after it opened in 1965, and taught there for 37 years prior to publishing Radical Campus: Making Simon Fraser University (D&M, 2005) to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the university. This study of SFU's first decade was compiled with assistance from history students John-Henry Harter and Dino Rossi. "My conviction is that nobody at the time really knew what was happening," he says. "By the time we had our fourth president in 1968, everything the first president knew was gone with him to Ottawa where he found his next job."

[Patricia Roy has become the leading academic authority on anti-Asian policies in B.C. with books such as A White Man’s Province: British Columbia Politicians and Chinese and Japanese Immigrants, 1858–1914 (1989) and The Oriental Question: Consolidating a White Man’s Province, 1914–41 (2003). For a few of the many books about racism in B.C., see abcbookworld entries for Ito, Roy; Kitagawa, Muriel; Laut, Agnes; Lee, Jo-Anne; McAlpine, John D.; Miki, Roy; O’Keefe, Betty; Robin, Martin; Ward, W. Peter.] @2010.

Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
Jewels of the Qila: The Remarkable Story of an Indo-Canadian Family
Radical Campus: Making of Simon Fraser Universiy
From Maps to Metaphors: The Pacific World of George Vancouver
The Pacific Province: A History of British Columbia
The Voyage of the Komagata Maru: The Sikh Challenge to Canada's Colour Bar


British Emigration Policy 1815-1830: Shovelling Out Paupers (Clarendon Press, 1972) 9780198223535.

Captain James Cook and His Time (D&M, 1979). With Robin Fisher.

East Indians in Canada, Booklet #5 (Canadian Historical Association, 1984).

The Voyage of the Komagata Maru: The Sikh Challenge to Canada's Colour Bar (New Delhi: Oxford, 1979; UBC Press 1988; UBC Press 2014 $29.95 9780774825481)

From Maps to Metaphors: The Pacific World of George Vancouver (UBC Press, 1993). Co-edited with Robin Fisher; based on the Vancouver Conference on Exploration and Discovery.

The India-Canada Relationship Exploring the Political, Economic, and Culture Dimensions (Sage Publications, 1994). Co-editor.

The Four Quarters of the Night: The Life-Journey of an Emigrant Sikh (McGill-Queen's University Press, 1995). With Tara Singh Bains.

The Pacific Province: A History of British Columbia (Douglas & McIntyre, 1996). Co-editor.

Radical Campus: Making Simon Fraser University (D&M, 2005).

Jewels of the Qila: The Remarkable Story of an Indo-Canadian Family (UBC Press, 2012) $85.00 978-0-7748-2216-9

[BCBW 2014] "Multiculturalism & Transnationalism" "Sikh"

Radical Campus: Making Simon Fraser University (D&M $45)
Review by Michael M'Gonigle

The scene is unimaginable today—900 students gathered in the Simon Fraser University mall with revolution on their minds. And willing to do something about it. But as recounted in Hugh Johnston’s period history, Radical Campus: Making Simon Fraser University (D&M $45), that was part of normal life in 1968. It was the age of protest and, in June of that year, SFU’s counter-culturalism culminated with a mass demonstration of students to demand the resignations of the University’s president and board. The goal of these students is equally unimaginable today as were their tactics—a university led by its faculty and students. Three weeks earlier, students in Paris had launched their now famous May uprising that brought the city and the government of Charles de Gaulle to a standstill. Around the world and atop Burnaby Mountain, there was real excitement about what was possible. As Johnston tells it, an older student, “a mother of five,” incited the SFU crowd with a loaded question: did they want “another Paris?” The roar came back: “Yes!”

Right from its title, Radical Campus is both disapproving of this history, and proud of it. Johnston’s conflicted stance is not surprising. This lengthy and detailed tome is really an unofficial biography of Simon Fraser University. And it is a fitting tribute, even in its ambivalence. Along the way Johnston has an eye for the telling vignette. He recalls, for instance, the graduation ceremony for doctoral candidate and student activist, Jim Harding. As he received his diploma, Harding, a co-founder of the SDU (Students for a Democratic University), surprised the crusty SFU Chancellor Gordon Shrum by kissing Shrum’s shoe. This was no act of gratitude: Harding later explained he had learned at university to kiss the boots of the authorities.

Setting up an “instant university” was the whim of premier W.A.C. (Wacky) Bennett in 1963. B.C.’s long-serving province-builder, Bennett had a penchant for mega-projects, from dams to highways to universities. And he liked to get his way. His designate for the SFU job was the equally colourful, and determined, Gordon Shrum, a UBC physics professor turned politician.

It started with a big architectural competition that led to the classical mountaintop design of architects Arthur Erickson and Geoff Massey. But this vision of a whole university hewn out of the forest had to be delivered in short order. Despite the visionary design, no one had a plan—just an impossible schedule. Between the conception and the execution, the decade quickly awoke from the lingering somnambulance of the 50s into the raucous marches of the mid and late 60s. Vietnam and anti-war demos. Ken Kesey and the cross-continental acid trip. Janis Joplin and the Beatles. Peace and love, riot police and tear gas.

Although Johnston does not much explore the larger context, SFU was part of the biggest building boom in the history of universities. Across North America and Europe, new suburban universities drove an expansion in higher education. York and Trent, Calgary and the University of Victoria—all were founded in the same era. What happened in those years laid the foundation for what became today’s knowledge economy. Though it still escapes notice today, the result was the creation of a “higher education industry” on a grand scale.

What that new industry would look like was really what was at stake during SFU’s infancy. Radical Campus is the story of this stumbling evolution, everyone groping in the dark toward unknown objectives. Johnston’s take on all this is ambivalent. Whatever its abstract potential, the practical pursuit of democracy at the university was, he argues, squandered by activist exuberance. And yet SFU remains an innovator today partly because of its early years. In those days, SFU pioneered students on Senate, and interdisciplinary studies. In recent years, SFU created the state-of-the-art Wosk Centre for Dialogue. As Johnston reports, however, the incessant demands for bottom-up democracy boomeranged with the “radicals” eventually losing public sympathy. Without power, their actions led to the opposite of what they wanted. Today the modern university is more administocracy than democracy, increasingly dominated by a commitment to public relations and corporate solicitations than to collective citizenship and critical knowledge.

Radical Campus offers an engaging and woefully overlooked take on one of the most important institutions of our age. At SFU, the cast of characters is huge; and Johnston provides some rich and illuminating backgrounds. The famous British Marxist, Tom Bottomore, one of SFU’s earliest and biggest academic scores, lasted only a few years, falling victim to the controversial implosion of SFU’s Politics, Sociology and Anthropology (PSA) department—about which a separate and unbiased book still needs to be written. And there was Patrick McTaggart-Cowan, SFU’s very first president and Shrum’s chosen man, who was unceremoniously sacked in the summer of ’68. Many key figures remain well-known, such as the music professor Murray Schafer, Students for a Democratic University president Martin Loney and an idealistic flower child from West Vancouver, Maggie Sinclair (later Mrs. Pierre Trudeau).

Other key activists included PSA student, Sharon Yandle, and student society president, Stan Wong. All are mixed in a jumble of sit-ins, strikes, insults and riotous meetings, smashed furniture, police actions, mass arrests and firings.
How tame we have become! Johnston also takes a detour across town and includes the story of Yippie leader Jerry Rubin, American co-founder of the Youth International Party, and his invasion with several hundred students of the UBC Faculty Club. (I was there—and I can remember being shocked, along with many others, by Rubin’s inhumane treatment of a small pig, his token of oppression).
Although SFU sociology professor Nathan Popkin, one of seven blacklisted professors during the late ‘60s, was somehow not interviewed for this book—even though he’s still living in Vancouver—Radical Campus is chock-full of information. If anything, there is so much detail that it almost overwhelms the reader. Radical Campus is a biography of an institution, and a snapshot of a time. It is, however, not an analysis of a movement, nor of a promise lost. Others will have to take up this task.

Meanwhile ours is a period not dissimilar to the early 1960s. Just as Vietnam was in its infancy then, the oil wars are in their infancy now. Citizens were faced with the prospect of nuclear annihilation then, and America was paralyzed by its own anti-communism; now we have the real catastrophe of global warming, and a creeping new authoritarianism in the U.S. that is full of denials, hell bent on business as usual. And where are the universities? Will students again wake up? 1-55365-140-5

[Michael M’Gonigle, a professor of law at the University of Victoria, is co-author (with Justine Starke) of Planet U: Sustaining the World, Reinventing the University, to be published by New Society Publishers. For more info, see M'Gonigle entry]

[BCBW 2006] "History"

Jewels of the Qila: The Remarkable Story of an Indo-Canadian Family
Review (2012)

It is tempting to liken Hugh Johnston’s remarkable Jewels of the Qila: The Remarkable Story of an Indo-Canadian Family to an Horatio Alger story.

Having reached San Francisco in 1906, the modest hero, Kapoor Singh Siddoo, arrives in British Columbia in 1912, dispenses with his Sikh turban and cuts his hair—while the Komagata Maru is still stranded in the Vancouver harbour—and overcomes racial prejudice and legal discrimination to transform himself into a forestry millionaire.
It gets better. Inspired by their thoroughly admirable mother, Besant Kaur, Kapoor’s two daughters attend Kitsilano High School, enter medical school, create a short-lived Krishnamurti School on Vancouver Island and eventually establish a hospital named after their father in the Punjab—following their meeting with Prime Minister Nehru.

But Johnston’s Jewels of the Qila is not just a success story about one unusual family. This is a splendidly serious, smart and multi-faceted investigation of events and characters in both India and Canada. Using Kapoor’s wide-ranging life as a prism, Johnston has provided an authoritative and engaging overview of Sikhs in B.C.

Born in Punjab in 1885, Kapoor, at age nine, was engaged to marry

Besant Kaur, aged four. Educated and pious, she would marry him at age 15 but would remain unable to join him until 1923. At age 33, she would become the first South Asian woman in Kapoor’s multi-racial logging villages on Vancouver Island.

Persuaded to leave India by his friend Piara Singh Langeri, Kapoor sailed third-class steerage to San Francisco. After six years of labouring jobs, he was refused entry to Canada at the Blaine border, but landed in Victoria in 1912, where he bought a small dairy operation.

Kapoor’s role in the origins of Sikh journalism on the West Coast, as outlined below, is but one sliver of Jewels of the Qila.

In Victoria, Kapoor met up with his friend Piara Singh Langeri who introduced him to two literate activists, Dr. Sundar Singh and Kartar Singh Hundal, nicknamed “Scissors.” This highly educated pair was producing Sansar [The World], handwritten in Punjabi and dubbed ‘The Only Hindustani Paper in Canada,’ as well as an English-language monthly, the Aryan.

Kapoor soon joined their efforts to gain equality for British subjects who were Sikhs, as promised by Queen Victoria. Whereas the foursome wanted their printing press on Speed Avenue to produce a secular paper, other devout Sikhs wanted a faith-based publication, leading to the short-lived rival paper, Hindustance.

During the Komagata Maru incident—when 376 Punjabis arrived in the Vancouver harbour, only to be refused entry—militants threatened to destroy the moderates’ headquarters, setting fire to the Sansar office.

With the Komagata Maru marooned in the harbour, England-educated Dr. Sundar Singh rushed to Ottawa, hoping to resolve the crisis, but his charm offensive with federal politicians failed. Kartar Singh Hundal, Piara Singh Langeri and Kapoor Singh Siddoo all followed him to Ontario nonetheless where, before he mysteriously vanished, Dr. Sundar Singh started a new publication, Canada and India: A Journal of Information and Conciliation.

While Kartar assimilated into Toronto society as a Theosophist, Piara would not forsake his turban and beard, and so he urged Kapoor to return to India with him to fight for independence with the Ghadar movement. Piara would soon be imprisoned in India for sedition, and narrowly escaped hanging, while Kartar was hobnobbing at the Toronto Literature Club with the likes of poet Bliss Carman and influential McClelland & Stewart editor Donald French.

Kapoor took the middle path between Piara and Kartar.

In 1917, former bunkhouse cook Mayo Singh, while he was winding down his logging venture in Chilliwack, sent Kapoor money for his passage back to B.C. to work as his bookkeeper and English spokesman. They undertook logging and milling operations in the Cowichan Valley, at the village of Paldi (originally called Mayo) and the village of Kapoor, both northwest of Duncan, and near the Sooke River. Neither man wore turbans; both shaved.

Eventually Kapoor became an equal partner in the Mayo Lumber Company Ltd., as well as partnering with Doman Singh, father of future forestry magnate Herb Doman. Despite several incidents of suspected arson, racial resentment and economic depressions, the partnership with Mayo Singh endured for 26 years until Kapoor started his own lumber mill in Vancouver.

The Mayo Sawmill was on the E&N Cowichan Subdivision. The Kapoor Lumber Company mill was located at Mile-35 on the CNR line at Sooke Lake, now part of the Greater Victoria Watershed. The Kapoor Mill operated from 1928 to 1940. Kapoor Lumber Company still owns lands in the area and the Kapoor Regional Park Reserve, at the end of the Galloping Goose Regional Trail, includes almost two kilometres of riverfront land.
Kapoor remained active in moderate politics. By 1920, he was elected as the first president of the B.C. branch of the United India Home Rule League (affiliated with Mahatma Gandhi’s Congress movement), then as president of the Hindustani Sabraj Society and the Canadian Hindustani Congress.

When nobel prize-winning author Sir Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) made his only visit to Canada in 1929, the Bengali poet spoke four times in Vancouver and once in Victoria, to overflow crowds.

Revered as a writer and as a spokesperson for Indian independence, Tagore was joined by his English translator and editor Charles Freer Andrews, a missionary who was a close associate of Gandhi.

Kartar returned to B.C. from Toronto to serve as a translator and guide for Tagore and Andrews. “Do your best to prove yourselves ‘Good Canadians’,” Tagore advised.

With Kapoor’s support, Kartar stayed in Vancouver and published seven more bilingual monthly issues of India and Canada: A Journal of Interpretation and Information, in 1929 and 1930. Both men befriended Theosophist and Group of Seven painter Lawren Harris, who also introduced Theosophy to Emily Carr and novelist Ethel Wilson.

In 1935, Kapoor brought his family to live in the Kitsilano house he had built at 2416 York Avenue in 1921, but they found their renters were still occupying the house upon arrival. Rather than risk the indignity of possibly being rejected by a Vancouver hotel, the well-to-do family slept in their Chevrolet for two nights beneath a steel bridge over the Capilano River.

The last issues of India and Canada were produced from Kapoor’s basement in Kitsilano in 1936 by Kartar. One of those Vancouver-produced editions contains a brief biography of Kapoor, calling for Canada to grant the vote to Punjabis such as Kapoor who had proven their worth.

The story of how Kapoor Singh Siddoo’s moderation eventually won the day—South Asians of Canada gained the right to vote in 1948—is ably told in Jewels of the Qila, which also outlines the considerable accomplishments of Kapoor’s daughters Jackie and Sarjit Siddoo who currently maintain a Krishnamurti Centre on Swanick Road in Victoria.

[BCBW 2012]

Komagata Maru Incident
Preface (2014)

Here is the preface by Hugh Johnston for his fully revised and expanded version of The Voyage of the Komagata Maru (UBC Press 2014) to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the incident.

“The country would be very different today if the passengers on the Komagata Maru had made their point successfully and been allowed to land.” – Hugh Johnston

The approaching centenary of the Komagata Maru has been an incentive for an extensive revision of a book that I first published thirty-five years ago. Over the decades, fresh material – published and unpublished – has come my way. The Internet has become a great time saver in tracking down small points that sometimes make a meaningful difference. And much has happened since I began my research back in 1975. Subtly, and perhaps not so subtly, the march of events has affected my own understanding of the documentary evidence of this history. Canada has become very different; Indo-Canadians are much more visible and better known and appreciated by other Canadians; and I have had wonderful opportunities over the decades to share time, engage with, and become very close to individual Indo-Canadians, particularly Punjabi Sikhs and their families both in Canada and in India. All of this has affected this revision. The past is something we strive to recapture, but it is always a work in progress.

The events surrounding the Komagata Maru were not acknowledged in mainstream Canadian history until well beyond the 1970s. Even now, they get surprisingly slight attention outside of British Columbia. Thirty or forty years ago, most Canadians were unaware that the country’s Asian-origin population had been kept very small as a matter of policy, and because Asian numbers were so small, Asians were easily left out of the national account. It follows that the older histories of Canada by a generation of well-respected Canadian historians such as Donald Creighton, A.R.M. Lower, J.B. Brebner, H.A. Innis, and W.L. Morton
devoted not a line or index entry to the Komagata Maru. Yet, with a little
imagination, one can see that the exclusion of people from the entire subcontinent of India was a major defining fact about Canada. The country
would be very different today if the passengers on the Komagata Maru had
made their point successfully and been allowed to land.

It makes a great difference that Canada now advertises itself as a multicultural
country instead of as a European and British country, which was the commonly accepted characterization a century ago. Multiculturalism gives Canadians an inclusive ideal, along with the challenge of trying to live up to it. Earlier generations did not have that inviting national ideal. But the contrasts between now and then are far from absolute. On the questions of individual freedoms, human values, human rights, national identity, race, and ethnicity, Canadians of a century ago had the same range of ideas available to them as do Canadians of today. And like today, those early Canadians could go to the same sources of inspiration –religion, political theory, self-interest, or science – and draw contrary
conclusions among themselves. The difference is in the consensus then and today: now the Canadian consensus is more open to the inclusion of difference than it was in the past. When it comes to ethnicity, this greater openness is a positive outcome of a reformed immigration policy that has allowed people into the country from all parts of the world. The full history of the Komagata Maru affair, from its origins to its long-term consequences, is an immigrant story writ very large. It has all of the elements of such a story, with its most admirable and least wanted extremes. It is about the remarkable desire of immigrants to reach Canada and North America, and their resourcefulness, determination, and persistence in getting here and in staying. It is also about the discouragement
and hostility that they encountered at the hands of many Canadians. And
it is about the respect, friendship, and help they received from a notable
few Canadians. Critically important was the outstanding success of some
of them – those who entered Canada years before the Komagata Maru arrived,
who witnessed its coming and who were troubled by its going, and who, nonetheless, went on to great personal success. These individuals
were adventurous in travelling at their own expense so far across the
globe in search of opportunity. They were resourceful in making the most
of what they found. And, like the vast majority of immigrants from other
nations, they never forgot their homeland even if they stayed away for
years. Their political life in the early years centred on what was happening in their home country. Some definitely wanted to have a place in the
political life of Canada, but they were all denied full citizenship until they
were elderly. They were, however, extraordinarily persistent in winning
a place for themselves in this country, and they were an inspiration and a
help to compatriots who followed in their path. Their rich legacy is the
sizable Indo-Canadian presence that the country now has.