By Drew Ursel

On May 18 Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will give a speech that’s waited 102 years to be heard. He’ll apologize on behalf of the Canadian government for the Komagata Maru incident.

It’s a move in line with Trudeau’s values and could again pull positive national attention for the new prime minister.

From a PR perspective, it’s at least a short-term win for Trudeau, in keeping with his image as progressive world leader. It supports his current policies on immigration and looks at upstaging his political predecessor in the process.

Whether this apology resonates in greater national public discussion over time remains to be seen. Previous attempts at reconciliation, like in 2008, come with a sizeable call to action and funding plan. So far, Trudeau’s announcement garnered significant coverage in Canadian and Indian media and even tweets from world leaders, including Barack Obama.


There may not be much to offer the 1914 passengers, but Trudeau’s audience may look for reassurance about the prime minister’s commitment to fighting anti-immigrant sentiment.

The story has deep roots in Canadian and Indian histories. In 1914 authorities in Vancouver prevented the vessel’s 376 passengers from Punjab (at the time part of British India) from disembarking for two months. Nineteen passengers were later killed on the return trip to India when British authorities tried arresting the organisers of the voyage.

In its wake emerged a grassroots movement calling for recognition of the event in Canadian politics at the local, provincial and federal levels. They may decide the success of the prime minister’s statements.

This is an interesting look at public apologies: whether substance or symbolism matters more to Canadians and interest groups in political discourse.