Activity Plan: Canada’s Immigration Policies and the Komagata Maru

Grades 10 to 12 | Social Studies (Social Justice)

Big question

Have immigration policies always supported Canada’s ideal of an inclusive, multicultural society?

Activity description

This lesson uses the Komagata Maru incident as a vehicle for exploring Canadian immigration policies in the early 20th century and their lasting impacts.

Grades and curricular area(s)

  • Grade 9 to Grade 12
  • Social Studies (Social Justice)

Big ideas

  • Social Studies 10: Historical and contemporary injustices challenge the narrative and identity of Canada as an inclusive, multicultural society.
  • Explorations in Social Studies 11: Social justice initiatives can transform individuals and systems.
  • 20th Century World History 12: Nationalist movements can unite people in common causes or lead to intense conflict between different groups.
  • Social Justice 12: Social justice initiatives can transform individuals and systems.

Curricular competencies

  • Social Studies 10: Compare and contrast continuities and changes for different groups at the same time period (continuity and change).
  • Explorations in Social Studies 11: Compare and contrast continuities and changes, trends and patterns, or similarities and differences for different people, places, events, phenomena, ideas, or developments (continuity and change).
  • 20th Century World History 12: Compare and contrast continuities and changes for different groups at the same time period (continuity and change).
  • Social Justice 12: Compare and contrast continuities and changes for different groups at the same time period (continuity and change).

Resources for teachers

Resources for activities


Step 1

Introduce the activity with the big question and the idea of beginning to look at Canada’s immigration policies through the Komagata Maru incident.

Have students start a Know Wonder Learn (KWL) chart to guide their discovery by filling in what they may already know about the Komagata Maru. If they have no knowledge of the incident, that’s fine.

Step 2

Display the two political cartoons either by projecting or printing. Have students choose one cartoon and gather at the cartoon of their choice with other students to discuss what they think the cartoon is about. You may use the following guiding questions to help discussions:

  • Who are the people involved?
  • What kind of power dynamic is happening? Who has the power and who does not?
  • What kind of power do they have and how do they use it?
  • What can we tell from the image?

Then have each group report out to the class on what they think their cartoon means.

Step 3

Have students continue filling in their KWL chart as they view the video The Sikh Migrants Who Challenged Canadian Immigration Law (7:01).

Step 4

Think-Pair-Share discussion:

  • What needs to be investigated further for you to understand the immigration policies behind the Komagata Maru incident and the subsequent apology?

Provide the opportunity add these questions to the “Wonder” column of their KWL chart.

Part 1: Canada’s Immigration Policies

Step 1

Have students work individually or in small groups to fill in the Immigration Acts and Legislation table using the following two resources:

  • Canadian Immigration Acts and Legislation
  • Immigration Policy in Canada

Step 2

Have students either discuss the following as a class or group or write down their answers as a group or individually:

  • How many of these policies were discriminatory based on race or country of origin?
  • Which people were discriminated against?
  • Did it surprise you that Canada had discriminatory policies? Why or why not?
  • Which policies applied to the passengers on the Komagata Maru?
  • What year was the Canadian Bill of Rights introduced? How did it affect immigration policy?

Part 2: Aboard the Komagata Maru

Step 1

Have students use their KWL chart as they read the following articles to gain insight into the experiences of those who were aboard:

  • Komagata Maru
  • Behind the Komagata Maru’s Fight to Open Canada’s Border

Step 2

Have students imagine themselves as one of the passengers on the ship and describe their experience through diary entries, paneled illustrations (comic book), ballad, PowerPoint presentation or other medium of choice. Items to address include:

  • Who am I (name, age, gender, home village, etc.)?
  • Why did I want to come to Canada?
  • Where did I board the ship?
  • How did I feel arriving in Vancouver?
  • What was it like during the two months in Vancouver harbour?
  • What was it like being escorted out of Vancouver?
  • Where did I leave the ship?
  • What happened to me after leaving the ship?

Step 3

Have students present their stories to the class (opportunity for teacher or peer assessment) or within a group (opportunity for peer assessment), using a rubric for presentations that you have co-created with the class.

Part 2a: The Court Case

Note: This activity is recommended for Grade 12 students because of the complexity of the court document. However, you may choose to adapt this portion for other grades.

Step 1

Have students explore the Munshi Singh court ruling document, Munshi Singh (Re), 1914 CanLII 679 (BC CA). Munshi Singh was the only test case from the passengers of Komagata Maru. The outcome determined the fate of all of the passengers. Focus on the judge’s ruling (not the whole document—refer to pages 1,380-1,381). You may choose to review other sections of the document as well.

Step 2

Direct students to appeal the court’s decision, either individually or in small groups:

  • Imagine you are a lawyer acting for Munshi Singh and the other passengers on the Komagata Maru. You are seeking to appeal the judge’s decision. To start, divide a page into two columns. In the left column, summarize what the judge has said in point form and plain language from the bottom of page 1,379 (“It is plain that upon study of the question…”) to the end of page 1,381. In the right column, note your ideas to argue against what the judge has said. Then prepare a speech to present to the court to represent your clients’ rights to stay in Canada.

Part 3: Apologies

Step 1

As a class, watch Justin Trudeau Apologizes in the House for the 1914 Komagata Maru Incident (9:23).

Step 2

In small groups, have students research other groups that have had apologies made to them in the House of Commons, and list them in the House of Commons Apologies table.

Step 3

Class or group discussion:

  • How many apologies has Canada made?
  • Are there any people you identified in the Immigration Acts and Legislation table that have not received an apology?
  • Is an official apology important? Why or why not?

Step 4

Assign or have each group choose a policy. Have groups locate the apology video and/or the transcript to analyze their apology, using the following questions:

  • Who is involved? Provide details (e.g., Canadian citizens with Japanese ancestry).
  • What actions were taken by the Government of Canada?
  • What was society like at that time of the incident?
  • Does the apology properly address the oppressions that occurred?
  • Does the government hold itself accountable?
  • What actions are mentioned, or do you see being taken to redress? Are they symbolic or practical, or both?

Step 5

Have each group present their findings to the class in a presentation format of their choice.

Activity 1: Telling an Immigration Story

Introduce the activity to students:

You’ve learned about the challenges, obstacles and hardships that South Asian settler pioneers faced immigrating to a new country 110 years ago. Your task is to create a first-hand account of someone who has come to Canada. This can be someone you know (such as a family member or friend) or someone from a (non-fiction) book or online source. The goal is to tell their story based on their journey, struggles and achievements. Before interviewing someone, if you’re telling the story of someone you know, be sure to ask for permission to use their story for this project.

Develop interview questions based on what you wonder about the person’s immigration story. Here are some examples:

  • Where did they emigrate from?
  • Why did they emigrate?
  • What was the journey to Canada like?
  • What were some of their first impressions and early experiences in this country?
  • What kind of work, jobs, or careers did they do?
  • What do they still do that carries on the traditions/culture of their ancestors (such as, holidays, food, clothes)

You can pick any presentation method that you like (such as, Prezi, PowerPoint, poster, movie, storybook).

Your finished project must include the following:

  • A presentation that tells the person’s story
  • Interview questions (typed out)
  • The person’s answers (typed out or recorded)
  • Pictures/graphics to go with your presentation
  • A reflection describing what stood out for you while working on this assignment—one thing that you didn’t know before, or any other takeaways
  • Citations for all resources (online, print, images, etc.)

Field Study

Consider conducting any of the following place-based activities or visits with your students, or have them do them on their own:

Activity 2: Resilience and Resistance

Have students do the following:

Step 1

Define resilience and resistance. How are they different?

Step 2

Brainstorm examples of both resilience and resistance—are there examples of actions that have been or are both?

Step 3

Explore the Komagata Maru incident and identify examples of both resilience and resistance.

Step 4

In small groups, discuss the following questions and create an output (e.g., paper, video, poster, graphic) outlining the key points of their discussions:

  • Does research typically frame the Komagata Maru incident as an act of resilience or resistance?
  • Can looking at an event through the lens of resilience and resistance change the narrative associated with it? Why is important to consider these views?
  • How did Komagata Maru supporters resist? How were they resilient?
  • Extension: Do you see connections with Indigenous resistance to the Indian Act and residential schools? (This will access students’ prior knowledge and link with current events relating to genocide in Canada

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