All We Are Asking of You is Justice and Fair Play

Sikh Migration to Canada

Written in 1913 by Isabella Ross Broad, An Appeal for Fair Play for the Sikhs in Canada was a document campaigning for the better treatment of immigrants. Broad, a retired church missionary who had spent much of her life in India, argued strongly for the rights of the Sikhs, as British subjects, to equitable treatment in Canada[1]. The appeal was a result of her shocking discovery of not just the unequal treatment but the attitude in general towards Sikhs in British Columbia.

Beginning in 1904, the population of South Asians in British Columbia was significantly growing. The vast majority of immigrants were Sikhs from India. However, by 1913, no more than 125 Sikhs would be allowed entry into Canada[2]. To compare, Canada had let in 2,623 Sikhs in 1907, just 6 years earlier[3]. The dramatic decrease in admittance was due to strict immigration restrictions.

The front cover of An Appeal for Fair Play for the Sikhs in Canada.

Immigration Restrictions or Barred Entry?

As Broad outlines in the appeal, it was required that all immigrants arrive by continuous journey from their country of origin[4]. This meant that they had to reach Canada in the same ship in which they had embarked from India. As there was no vessel that made a direct trip from India to Canada[5], immigration was essentially impossible.

The appeal for fair play also petitions against the barring of the entry of wives and children of the Sikh men entering the country, without the possibility of reuniting them[6]. For Broad, these were very concerning policies.

Implications, Consequences and Accountability:

The restrictions had implications that went much further than simply being denied entry. As British subjects, Sikhs were legally allowed every right to immigrate, free of such impositions. Paula Hastings explores Canadian representations of India during this time period and she suggests although Indians were considered “fellow-subjects”, this did not automatically imply an equality among the people of Britain’s empire[7]. In spite of the years of loyalty and willing service to the empire, the status of Sikhs ranked lower than that of other immigrants.

Passengers on the SS Komagata Maru, 1914.

Just one year after the appeal for fair play was published on May 23 1914, 376 predominately Sikh migrants were confined for 2 months aboard the Komagata Maru ship, denied entry and then returned to India, where the British colonial regime killed 18 passengers, hung 20 for insurrection, and subjected dozens more to imprisonment or transportation[8]. This is a shameful page in Canadian history.[9] This past May, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a formal apology, stating that “Canada’s government was without question responsible for the laws that prevented these passengers from immigrating peacefully and securely.”[10] Had An Appeal for Fair Play for the Sikhs in Canada been taken more seriously by the Canadian government perhaps certain parts of Canada’s past would not need public apologies.


Nikita lorenzo-Vicente is currently completing a Masters of Museum Studies at the University of Toronto iSchool. She received her undergraduate degree in Cultural Studies and North American Studies from Wilfrid Laurier University. Both her parents are immigrants to Canada and she is the first in her family to graduate university. Her interests lie in public programming and education in museums.

[1](Iacovetta, Draper and Ventresca, 1998).

[2](Library and Archives Canada, 2016).

[3](Canadian Sikh Centre, 2011).

[4](Broad, 1913).

[5](Broad, 1913).

[6](Broad, 1913).

[7](Hastings, 2008).

[8](James, 2009).

[9](Iacovetta, Draper and Ventresca, 1998).

[10](CBC News, 2016)