Komagata Maru: With apologies to …

Or rather, with seemingly insufficient apologies, judging from the reaction to the Stephen Harper’s latest foray into ethnic apologolitics.

On Sunday, the PM was scheduled to attend the 13th annual Mela Gadri Babian Da festival in Surrey, British Columbia, where he would deliver what was described by his office rather vaguely as “brief remarks” before a crowd of several thousand Indo-Canadians.

Instead of a typical summer stump speech, however, Harper delivered an official-sounding apology, on behalf of the government of Canada, for its historic rebuff of the Komagata Maru. And right at that moment, what should have been another feel-good moment for the Most Strategically Sorry Prime Minister in the History of Ever went off script:

[A]s soon as [Harper] left the stage, members of the Sikh community rushed to the podium immediately denouncing the apology. They said they wanted it delivered on the floor of the House of Commons.

“The apology was unacceptable,” said Jaswinder Singh Toor, president of “The Descendents of Komagatamaru Society.”

“We were expecting the prime minister of Canada to do the right thing. The right thing was … like the Chinese Head Tax.,” said Toor, referring to Harper’s full apology to the Chinese-Canadian community in 2006 for the head tax imposed on Chinese immigrants who came to Canada between 1885 and 1923.

“Our community . . . is very much disappointed. We have been treated like a second class citizen,” said Toor, whose grandfather was among those who were returned to India on the ship.(CANADIAN PRESS)

The next day, it got worse, as far as coverage of the trip, overshadowing the PM’s appearance at British Columbia’s 150th birthday celebration. Worst still from the government’s perspective, undoubtedly, was the accusation that his multiculturalism master-at-arms Jason Kenney had promised that the much-anticipated apology would take place not in a suburban park during the summer holidays, but in the House of Commons:

Indo-Canadians across the country feel “deceived and disappointed” over Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s apology for the Komagata Maru incident, the managing director of Radio India said.

Maninder Gill said the station, which is based in Surrey but broadcasts across Canada, has received hundreds of phone calls during three talk shows about Harper’s speech, and “not even one caller came in favour of the apology” because it was delivered in Surrey’s Bear Creek Park on Sunday instead of in Parliament. […]

Gill said the federal secretary of state for multiculturalism and Canadian identity led him and about 100 other people to believe Harper would deliver the apology in the House of Commons while giving a speech about the Conservatives’ historical recognition programs at the Grand Taj Banquet Hall in Surrey on May 10.

“Jason Kenney personally declared on behalf on the Canadian government that they were going to address this in Parliament,” he said.

“Now the community feels like it’s 1914 on the boat all over again.” (Vancouver Sun)

Apparently stung by the suggestion that Kenney was to blame for the community’s apparently thwarted hopes, the minister’s office promptly, if clumsily, went on the attack. Not only did they point reporters at Kenney’s original statement, issued in May, in which he made no such commitment, but they went even further, putting out the line that Gill was – gasp! — a Liberal, and his criticism purely partisan in nature – a charge he vehemently denied.

My reaction, after soaking down the whole sorry saga upon my return to civilization yesterday morning, can pretty much be summed up as “Yikes” – but at the same time, it was bound to happen eventually. With every apology that a government doles out, the nearer the odds of one going pear-shaped on impact approach 1:1, and that goes double – or maybe even triple – when those apologies involve events that took place long enough ago for both the residual bitterness over the original slight, and the demand for official redress, to be near the tipping point.

In this case, what I suspect happened – and this is purely speculation, mind you – is that the government never had any intention of giving a Komagata Maru apology the full parliamentary treatment for perfectly legitimate, if debateable reasons – ensuring that it remains a rare, and, as a result, more meaningful gesture that is saved for only the most solemn occasions, for instance.

Given that, I find it hard to believe that Kenney – who would, after all, have to go back to these groups in the future, given his portfolio, which he seems to see as less a job and more a sacred calling – would deliberately make a promise that he knew he couldn’t keep.

At the same time, though, if you go back to the coverage of Kenney’s original statement back in May – here, for instance, or here –  it’s clear that some media outlets, at the very least, had jumped to the conclusion that a formal apology was imminent. In fact, not even the groups responsible for organizing and hosting Sunday’s festival seem to have been aware that the PM intended to use the occasion to deliver the one and only apology that he plans to give for Canada’s role in the Komagata Maru tragedy. Which makes me wonder why Kenney’s office – or someone in government, anyway –  didn’t take steps right then and there to clear up any ambiguity over what the government was prepared to do, and, perhaps more importantly, what it wasn’t.

Yes, it’s likely that the same naysayers would have popped up in the press, criticizing the Conservatives for failing to live up to their commitments, but it would have happened weeks – or even months – before Harper showed up on a Surrey stage. Instead, the much-vaunted master message-framers at PMO blew a perfectly good opportunity to showcase the Conservatives’ efforts to make inroads into the Indo-Canadian community, who, in turn, were left feeling as though the PM had broken his word on a matter of extreme, if symbolic importance. Which makes this one of those rare situations where saying sorry actually made things worse. Apologies for the apology all round.