“The Immigration Act a weapon”: Panama Maru and the Exclusion of Immigrants, 1913

by Steve Schwinghamer, Historian
(Updated January 28, 2022)

On 17 October 1913, Panama Maru arrived at Victoria, British Columbia. The ship was a regularly-scheduled passenger liner of the Osaka Soshen Kaisha Line, carrying 56 passengers identified by immigration authorities as “Hindus,” although many were probably Sikhs. Ten of the passengers were promptly landed, and another seven followed after a day, based on their having established domicile in Canada before.[1] The remaining passengers, thirty-nine in total, were held for further examination. Their experience with Canadian immigration policies and law sheds light on the nature of immigrant exclusion from Canada in the early twentieth century, including the more well-known refusal of passengers from Komagata Maru the following year.

Although these detained passengers claimed to be returning to Canada while aboard Panama Maru, none were, and all but one recanted their stories quickly as immigration officers inquired into their cases. This hardened the opinion of immigration officers that the passengers were attempting to enter Canada by misrepresentation.[2] Further, lacking funds and not having travelled on a continuous journey, the passengers were found by the officers to be in violation of two other specific regulations.[3] Passenger Gurdit Singh tried to explain his false claim to be a returning Canadian as follows:

“Mr Davie (counsel) (Q): What did you tell the Immigration Officer on the boat?
Mr Singh (A): A man at Hong Kong told me to say what I said on the boat.
Q: Is what you said on the boat true?
A: The man at Hong King said to me ‘You say just as I am telling you and you will be landed.’ What he said to me there I said to you. Q: What is the name of that man?
A: I do not know because I did not ask of him. It was a man from India who wears a hat. He was one of our country men wearing a hat; I do not know whether he is a Hindu or a Mohametan.
Q: Who told you to change your story now?
A: I find that I am not able to secure a landing and I am now therefore speaking the truth.
Dr Rogers (immigration officer) (Q): Do you know whether the man with the hat belongs to the Steamship Co., or not?
A: He was a man returned from Canada going to India.”[4]

Regardless of coaching, the misrepresentation was a violation of the immigration act and by itself grounds for deportation. In an odd circumstance, the deportation orders for the passengers did not make clear that the misrepresentation was one of the grounds being used against the passengers, so this did not feature in their later appeals.[5] Instead, the other two regulations formed the crux of the passenger’s appeals. Orders-in-Council 920 (continuous journey) and 926 (Asiatic immigrant money requirement) were part of a broad exclusionary framework intended to place every possible obstacle in the path of Asian immigrants to Canada, even if they were British subjects. In the case of the continuous journey regulation, the requirement was that immigrants come either by direct route or by through ticket from their country of origin. Panama Maru sailed to Canada from Yokohama, Japan, leaving room for the immigration authorities to deem that anyone not from Japan on the ship did not make a continuous journey. The regulation was a general barrier to people crossing the Pacific, as there were no lines offering direct routes or through ticketing from several major Asian countries. The Superintendent of Immigration at the time, W.D. Scott, argued that this rule applied “not only to Asiatics but to Europeans, Africans, and all others,” but internal instructions in the immigration department show this to be untrue.

A private communication in 1908 from Laval Fortier (on behalf of Scott) to immigration agents at the various ports of entry clarified the use of the continuous journey rule. According to these instructions, the rule was “absolutely prohibitive in its terms but…it is only intended to enforce it strictly against really undesirable immigrants. You will understand, therefore, that a great deal is left to your own discretion with regard to the application of that particular Order.”[6] By contrast to this subterfuge, the money requirement articulated in PC 926 was explicitly targeted against Asian immigrants, demanding that anyone of “Asiatic origin” should have two hundred dollars in his actual possession as a condition of admission.[7] Panama Maru’s passengers were detained and ordered deported at Victoria based on these two regulations.

Normally, a person being ordered deported from Canada could appeal to the minister responsible for immigration. In this case, appeals were submitted to the Minister’s office for consideration, along with a note from the Superintendent of Immigration assuring the Deputy Minister that Scott would “endeavour to have the dismissed appeals reach Victoria immediately prior to the sailing of a boat on which they can be deported, so that they may be put on board without giving them any opportunity to make further trouble or evade the regulations by any appeal to the local courts.” Unsurprisingly, the Minister dismissed the appeals.[8] Further, Section 23 of the Immigration Act of 1910 was intended to prevent any further appeal to the courts over the extra-judicial processes of detention, denial, and deportation. Therefore, the success of the passengers in bringing the matter before the court provoked some indignation from Scott, who asked by telegram “Advise exactly how Hindu’s case is again before court” and went on to write to the Deputy Minister, “I do not see why we should recognize the courts at all.”[9] All of this action on the part of immigration authorities was entirely consistent with a view of immigration policy articulated by immigration agent W.C. Hopkinson, that “the Government of this Country has in the Immigration Act a weapon in its hand which could exclude this class of immigrants at any time should there be any danger of an enormous influx.”[10]

Despite the bureaucratic and legal force available to the immigration branch, the passengers of Panama Maru succeeded in their appeal to the Supreme Court of British Columbia. However, the decision of Chief Justice Gordon Hunter did not start sympathetically for the passengers. Their lawyer – J.E. Bird, who would later take on the case of the passengers of Komagata Maru – argued that the immigration branch had “employed a subterfuge to place a ban on Hindus as a race and that therefore the Court ought…to defeat the alleged injustice.” Hunter dismissed this, pointing out that the Court, in dealing with federal laws, “is not concerned with questions of expediency or good faith but only with their validity and interpretation.”[11]

The tone of the decision quickly turned, however, as Hunter found technical issues with both the continuous journey and Asiatic money regulations. In the case of the money requirement, the order-in-council named persons of “Asiatic origin”, a broader category than the language of “Asiatic race” given in the statute. Hunter also took issue with the order-in-council requiring a person to have money in their actual possession, rather than as the statute states, in their own right (for instance, money in the bank). On continuous journey, he relied in part on a previous decision invalidating the order-in-council, but also noted that the regulation did not match the immigration act in its use of the terms “naturalized citizen” and “native”, which Hunter felt could unduly broaden the regulation and prohibit “persons of British race.” On 24 November 1913, Chief Justice Hunter ruled the orders-in-council invalid based on these differences between the immigration act and the regulations, and released the Panama Maru’s thirty-nine passengers.[12]

The power of the weapon of immigration policy was obvious in the immigration branch’s immediate response to this ruling. The day after the ruling, Scott requested the passage of an order-in-council already in process since mid-October of that year: PC 2642, that barred all artisans and labourers, skilled or unskilled, from entry at any port in British Columbia.[13] The wholesale ban did not explicitly target Asian immigration, but as it was only applied on the West Coast and given the circumstances of the regulation’s adoption, it is properly situated as a racial exclusion. The day after that, 26 November 1913, the immigration branch also pursued the possibility of an appeal of the Hunter decision and the admission of passengers from Panama Maru, but was eventually discouraged from that route by advice from the Department of Justice.[14] In addition, the Minister appointed a permanent Board of Inquiry at the port of Victoria in early December.[15] By early 1914, with the matter “engaging the attention of the Prime Minister”, the orders-in-council used to exclude Asian immigrants were redrafted to withstand any new challenges, and approved.[16]

Throughout the case of Panama Maru, immigration authorities did not often openly discuss the rationale for their exclusionary actions. However, the interest of the Colonial Office in the issue remained active—maintained, immigration authorities complained, by “a coterie of professional agitators”—and in that context the reasons for the official obstructions were finally communicated at some length. The Assistant Superintendent of Immigration, E. B. Robertson, wrote to a colleague that:

[T]he Canadian Government does not look with favour upon an influx of Hindus to this country. The caste system, the lower standard of living, the impossibility of assimilation, the susceptibility of this class of people to tuberculosis and their general inability to withstand the rigours of the climate all render it necessary not only in the interests of Canada but in the interests of the Hindus themselves for the Canadian government to prevent as far as possible the introduction of further numbers.[17]

The passengers of Panama Maru secured a surprising victory in gaining admission despite these attitudes. However, the immigration branch’s hardened policies in response to their victory were already in place by the time Komagata Maru arrived in 1914 at the port of Vancouver. Mr. Bird took the case again, arguing against the new versions of the same regulations—continuous journey and money requirements—and lost, resulting in the deportation of more than three hundred and fifty passengers. The refusal of Komagata Maru, although tragic, was not isolated or exceptional. It was the outcome of a series of deliberate actions over time on the part of Canadian immigration authorities, as illuminated by their responses to Panama Maru’s passengers.

  1. W.D. Scott, Memorandum re: Thirty-nine Hindus, Ottawa ON, 12 February 1914, in Library and Archives Canada, “Hindu Immigration”, RG 76 Volume 385 File 536999 (hereafter File 536999) Part 8.
  2. Library and Archives Canada, Statutes of Canada, “An Act Respecting Immigration, 1910” (Ottawa: SC 9-10 Edward VII, Chapter 27), Section 33, sub-sections 2 and 7.
  3. Scott to Cote, Ottawa ON, 24 November 1913, in Library and Archives Canada, “Immigration Agency, Victoria, British Columbia”, RG 76 Volume 333 File 334402 Staff (hereafter File 334402 Staff) Part 3; Hopkinson to W.W. Cory, Deputy Minister of the Interior, 25 October 1913, Vancouver BC, File 536999 Part 6.
  4. Immigration Branch, “Minutes of a Board of Inquiry, The Immigration Act & Gurdit Singh, son of Pertab Singh”, 22 October 1913, Victoria BC, in File 536999 Part 7.
  5. Hunter C.J., Supreme Court of British Columbia, “39 Hindus and The Immigration Act”, certified copy produced 12 December 1913 and filed in File 536999 Part 8.
  6. Scott to Cory, Ottawa ON, 5 September 1913, in File 536999; Fortier to F.W. Annand, Immigration Officer at Halifax NS, Ottawa ON, 1 April 1908, in “Private Instructions to Port Agents: Emigrants prohibited from coming to Canada unless coming by a continuous journey from the country of their birth or citizenship”, Library and Archives Canada, RG 76 Volume 481 File 745162 Private.
  7. Canada, Privy Council, Order in Council 1910-926, Ottawa ON, 9 May 1910, accessed at http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/politics-government/orders-council/ on 7 April 2016.
  8. Scott to Cory, Ottawa ON, 7 November 1913, File 536999 Part 8; Scott to Dr. G.L. Milne, Immigration officer and doctor at Victoria BC, Ottawa ON, 19 November 1913, File 536999 Part 8.
  9. Scott to Milne, Ottawa ON, 11 November 1913, in File 536999 Part 8; Scott to Cory, Ottawa ON, 12 November 1913, in File 536999 Part 8.
  10. Hopkinson to Scott, Vancouver BC, 14 August 1913, in File 536999 Part 6.
  11. Hunter C.J., Supreme Court of British Columbia, “39 Hindus and The Immigration Act”, certified copy produced 12 December 1913 and filed in File 536999 Part 8. This ruling is complicated by the contemporary legal feud over immigration law and jurisdiction between BC and the federal government. Legislation was often contested between the two governments based on this battle of authorities, rather than due to moral or ethical differences about racism, discrimination or exclusion.
  12. Milne to Scott, 24 November 1913, Victoria BC, in “Hindu immigration”, Library and Archives Canada, RG 76 Volume 385 File 536999 Pt 8.
  13. Scott to Mitchell, Ottawa ON, 25 November 1913, in File 536999 Part 8; Canada, Privy Council, Order-in-Council PC 2642-1913, Ottawa ON, 8 December 1913, accessed at https://recherche-collection-search.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/Home/Record?app=fonandcol&IdNumber=1433624&q=File%20536999%20Part%208 on 7 April 2016.
  14. Cory to R.L. Newcombe, Deputy Minister of Justice, Ottawa ON, 26 November 1913, File 536999 Part 8; Newcombe to Cory, Ottawa ON, 30 December 1913, File 536999 Part 8.
  15. W.J. Roche, Minister of the Interior, to Milne, 6 December 1913, in File 334402 Staff Part 3.
  16. Cory to Scott, Ottawa ON, 3 January 1914, in File 536999 Part 8; PC 23 and 24 of 1914 copied in File 536999 Part 8.
  17. Robertson to Mitchell, Ottawa ON, 5 January 1914, in File 536999 Part 8.

Steve Schwinghamer

Man, dressed in khaki shirt and pants carrying a backpack, stands on rocky terrain

Steve Schwinghamer is a historian at the Canadian Museum of Immigration and is affiliated with the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling at Concordia University. With Jan Raska, he co-authored Pier 21: A History. He is interested in the policies and places of Canadian immigration, especially in the 20th century.