Today I attended The Komagata Maru Incident at the Stratford Shakespearean Festival and years ago a friend of mine, bearing dark skin, told me he did not want to be the token black man for the Stratford Festival Theatre. An awkward sentence, I admit, though that is no mistake. How do the pieces, token black man and, the Stratford Festival Theatre really connect… other than to exist floating in proper sentence structure between a capital letter and a period? It connects because today that Festival Theatre has made significant changes in how casting is done. It has also made significant changes in what is staged. Those changes resulted in a powerhouse of a play, designed to understand the Canadian story has sore spots where Canadians have used law and interpretations to enforce racist actions.
How can I claim authority to this observation? Well I am a child of an immigrant. I was born and raised in Stratford, I did work at the Stratford Festival Theatre (back when the Artistic Director was an actor), I have both enforced the law, and I have attended court. In the meantime I acknowledge I do bear white skin. I am also aware that my own privilege to be here in Canada was a deftly threaded plan.
After WWII my grandparents sailed from Europe to Canada and eventually purchased land near St. Mary’s, Ontario. As a child I would ask for stories and my Grandfather would chuckle, between puffs of his pipe, and tell one of the safe stories. The stories of the war were emotionally off limits, but he could smile and tell me how he had no idea he arrived in Canada and ended up in Orange Country. You see, my Grandfather was strict Catholic, Roman Catholic. Orangemen were Protestant. That draws a simple conclusion that Orange Country was Protestant Country and my Grandfather was now tilling land in Orange Country. This was my knee-high to the grasshopper exposure to pre-existing beliefs affecting whether or not someone was welcome. Today, over forty years later, I understand those thought processes existed long before I arrived and I am resigned to the reality they will remain long after I am gone.
In that middle, in the moments between me being here and me being gone, I can make choices with my time, my words, my energy. My time is limited, my energy is more limited, and my words seem to go on forever. Today I chose to spend my time at a play I was sure would wreak havoc on my emotional landscape. To those of you with soft bleeding hearts, you understand this risk. To those of you with the injured grey matter labelled as PTSD, that means a whole new height for bravery. Well today bravery has been shown by a world renowned theatre. A world stage has put on this show and used actors who have never debuted on that famous stage. Actors that are authentic to the birthright of the story and I now know my friend is no longer a the token dark skinned person at the Stratford Festival Theatre.
So things may have changed but there are still stories to tell such as the Komagata Maru story. It has a deep weave but here are some simple introductory facts. Know it involves Canadian law manipulating verbs, nouns, adverbs, and adjectives between their respective capital letters and periods. Those laws were designed to make it impossible for immigrants from India to “legitimately” land on Canadian soil.
Another piece to the design included a price tag, sometimes called a “Head Tax”. In the Continuous Passage Act there was a regulation requiring $200 be in the passenger’s possession while Europeans only needed $25. In this particular law the fee was not deemed a Head Tax but it certainly appears similar. Regardless, the fees were prohibitive to some and accessible to others. (reference playbill from the Stratford Festival Theatre 2017 play, Komagata Maru Incident). I don’t know what my grandfather paid but I suspect it was closer to the $25.
The Komagata Maru Incident is a story based on fact, the fact that a rich Sikh business person commissioned a ship to bring some people from India to Canada. A fact that the rich business person believed the aforementioned laws mentioned would not stand up in court. That ship was the Komagata Maru and that brave person was Gurdit Singh.
In the meantime the laws were inked to paper, in proper sentence form. The sentences started with the designated capital letter and ended with a prescribed period. In the middle there were terms like “country of origin” and “continuous journey”. These terms were then interpreted and those interpretations were found to “justify” stopping the people on board the Komagata Maru from entering Canadian soil. These very real people also happened British subjects though they bore a darker tone to their skin than my lily white. Few, very few, were finally allowed debark and enter Canada. The rest were left on board the Komagata Maru. They are where our story takes us. They endured scarce food, scarce water and then found themselves being escorted out of Canadian territory by a military escort.
What ensued after, back in Canada? Quite simply it included murder, assassination, and court sanctioned death sentences. 100 years later, in 2014, there was a stamp produced remembering the incident and Prime Minister Harper articulated an apology received as empty. The wound continued to fester. On May 18, 2016 Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued an apology, in Parliament. He acknowledged what happened as a “great injustice” and stated “…for every regrettable consequence that followed, we are sorry”. People in the galley called out words of support. Those words were a Sikh blessing meaning “blessed is the one who utters”. (facts are referenced from the book Komagata Maru. A Journey to Canada by B.S. Marwah)
At the end of the play I exited, teared up in the eyes and tore up inside. I had on dark sunglasses, as I forgot my clear inside glasses. That meant the emotion I had unveiled was poetically shrouded by a dark prescription lens. A woman stopped me and asked me about my service dog, Char. She wanted to know the reason Char was a service dog. I decided to answer, incredibly honestly, and the tears flowed. Those tears were originally unbound in, during, and at the conclusion of this play though they they started long ago.
They were unbound for the same reason I have a service dog and I told her. I shared I had the standard life threatening experience(s) required to have PTSD. I shared that this was on the job as a police officer. One incident early on in the career and it was an incredibly serious attempt. A second standard element required for PTSD to exist finds foothold when a piece of your moral fibre is critically compromised. In my case that moral compromise had nothing to do with the person(s) that tried kill me or injure me. It had everything to do with how I perceived sterile white laws were manipulated, interpreted, and enforced. I answered that woman and I told her that is why I have a service dog.
Years ago my friend told me of a moral compromise when he identified he would not be the token black man. He braved another journey. 100 years ago Gurdit Singh braved a belief and challenged a questionable Canadian Law. History took another journey. Today the Stratford Festival is braving actors of different ethnic backgrounds and maybe there can be found a fresher sense of authenticity. In the meantime, I ask myself to remember from whence I came while consciously fostering where I wish to go. I know this can only be done when I step forward and understand my white skin has privilege I do not understand. Once I do that, I know I can take precious time to value another person’s story and maybe change how I use my words.
This written gratitude may be 100 years too late but hopefully today will make a different tomorrow, yours certainly did, Gurdit Singh. The flags in the photo included carry many stories, all of which we cannot hope to know, only hope to honour. It was taken recently when the clouds and sky had different opinions as they dialogued only the Canadian Flag took a brisk stretch while the others only fluffed.