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Canada apologizes for past discriminatory immigration policies

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With a recent string of apologies to various Canadian communities, the Government of Canada is recognizing the past wrongs of Canada’s former immigration policies. The Conservative government’s Historical Recognition Program has allotted $29 million to commemorate several of these important yet shameful events in Canada’s history.

“Like any country, our country is not perfect. We haven’t always lived up to our high ideals,” stated Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in August 2006, two months after the Government of Canada established the Community Historical Recognition Program. Established for Canadian communities that were affected by immigration restrictions and wartime measures, this program acknowledges the unpleasant chapters of Canada’s history in ways that are meaningful to the communities concerned.

The Honourable Jason Kenney, Secretary of State for Multiculturalism and Canadian Identity has recently announced that apologies would be made and commemorative grant money would be allocated to some of these communities.

He pledged that $5 million will be made available to the Chinese-Canadian community to go towards commemorative and educational projects about the Chinese immigration experience in Canada and wartime restrictions. Such community-based projects may include educational material, exhibits, monuments, or commemorative plaques. This is a follow-up to Prime Minister Harper’s June 2006 official apology to Chinese-Canadians, in which he pledged to give ex-gratia symbolic payments to living Head Tax payers.

Minister Kenney second big announcement was that the Government of Canada would soon issue a formal apology for the Komagata Maru tragedy. The Komagata Maru ship, which brought 376 Indians to Canada in 1914, was turned away by a discriminatory immigration policy that was in place at that time. Upon arrival back in India, at least 20 of the individuals on board were killed by British troops. The incident has long been a source of grievance for the Indo-Canadian community. Minister Kenney announced that $2.5 million would be made available to Canada’s Indian community for the building of a Komagata Maru memorial and that efforts would be made to integrate the incident into Canadian history textbooks.

“It’s not only a good day for the Indo-Canadian community – it tells you where we are as a society in Canada today. We have moved far, far away from those discriminatory policies of the early 20th century,” stated Jasbir Sandhu of the Professor Mohan Singh Memorial Foundation.

Following that announcement, a spokesperson for Minister Kenney confirmed that the Historical Recognition Program will also include funding to commemorate the St. Louis incident of 1939, which saw a boat of 900 Jewish refugees turned away from Canada, only to return to Europe as the Second World War broke out. It is estimated that at least a third of its passengers were ultimately killed by German forces. About $300,000 will go towards an education program and a monument to memorialize this incident.

The latest government announcement is a $10-million grant to the Ukrainian-Canadian community to “support initiatives related to the First World War internment experience that predominantly affected the Ukrainian and other East European ethnic communities in Canada.”

The timing and motivation of the announcements are the subject of debate among opposition parties, who claim that the Conservative’s announcements are politically motivated.

Regardless of the rationale, the affected communities are thrilled to have received this recent recognition.

“Acknowledging the past is an important step toward building a positive and constructive relationship between Canada and India, and Indo-Canadians and the wider Canadian community,” asserts Naresh Raghubeer, national policy director of the Canada India Foundation; a statement that can apply to all Canadian communities.

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