Canadians have been caught up in the drama of the arrival of a small boat with 500 people aboard.  They have traveled for several months on the Pacific Ocean, turned away in Thailand, Australia, and given the cold shoulder everywhere else until they reached the western shore of Vancouver Island, escorted by the Canadian navy.

Many have suggested that the ship should have been boarded and just turned away. Unfortunately these views have a terrible pedigree, and call to mind the fate of two other boats, the Komagata Maru and the SS St Louis.

The Komagata Maru set sail from Calcutta in 1914, picking up passengers in Yokohama and Shanghai before making the long voyage to Vancouver.  Its arrival in the harbour was met by powerful hostility.  In the previous decade Canada had opened itself to the arrival of 400,000 Europeans, but had strict laws and regulations preventing Asians and others from coming.  The passengers on board the Komagata Maru, who were mainly Sikh, tried desperately to land but both the federal and provincial governments did all in their power to prevent the 354 passengers from landing.  This brutal discrimination succeeded, and the ship was forced to sail back to Calcutta.  The Imperial authorities concluded that the leaders on the boat were dangerous agitators for Indian freedom, and 19 of them were killed on arrival in Calcutta.  Many others were arrested and imprisoned.  The incident remains a dark stain on Canada’s reputation, for which Stephen Harper has yet to apologize in the House of Commons.  The House itself has endorsed a motion in the name of Liberal MP Ruby Dhalla expressing just such an apology.

The SS St Louis made its famous voyage, known as the “voyage of the damned”, in 1939.  Its 936 Jewish passengers made their way from Hamburg to Cuba, where they were denied landing, although they all had visas.  After a stay of many days, the ship set sail for the U.S., where it was also rejected, and then to Halifax, where the Liberal government of the day also refused entry.  It had to make its way back across the north Atlantic to Antwerp, where passengers were dispersed to a number of countries, many of which were soon to be occupied by the Nazis.  Historians tell us that as many as 254 of the St Louis passengers were killed in Nazi death camps, while the rest probably survived the war.

Just two years ago Canadian Church leaders held a ceremony of apology to recognize the terrible wrong done.  Bishop Marcel Gervais of Ottawa said “remembering what happened to the passengers will help Christians make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

This past week Canadians have been subjected to wild rumours of disease rampant aboard the ship, and allegations that “terrorists” and “criminals” are about to run amok in the country.  Many urged the Canadian navy to board the ship in international waters and send them on their way.

Bishop Gervais’s admonition notwithstanding, it would seem some have learned very little from our past. Of course people paid to get on the Tamil boat, just as they did to get on the Komagata Maru, the SS St Louis, and Kastner’s train for that matter.

Sri Lanka’s civil war did not come to a pretty ending.  As the army made its way through the country, planes strafing villages and bombing civilians, Tamils who had returned home after the ceasefire of 2001 were corralled by the opposing sides to the north-eastern shore of the country.  The complete exclusion of journalists and international observers and agencies makes it impossible to know how many died in the last weeks of the war:  estimates range from a few hundred to 40,000.  The entire leadership of the LTTE and their families were wiped out.  Hundreds of thousands became refugees in their own country.

General Fonseca, who ran as a presidential candidate, was arrested the day after the election.  Dozens of journalists are killed every year, and many foreign observers, from Swedish Foreign Minister to Bob Rae, Canadian MP (and writer of this blog), have been refused entry to the country.

Canada has an obligation under our law to take refugee claims seriously, to weigh them in a judicious manner, and to insist that allegations of “terrorism” and “human trafficking” be proven.  We also need to work with our international friends and the UN to understand better why these boats are travelling, how they are being organised, and why people feel they should take them.

It is a pity Vic Toews didn’t mention the Komagata Maru and the SS St Louis, and why we’re not going to repeat those atrocities.  To turn away a boat that’s been on the high seas for over 90 days would be unconscionable.  It would also be illegal.

What, then, of the “moral hazard”, the argument that if we let one boat it will be followed by countless more ?  These are not exactly cruise ships.  Not everyone on them will be found to be a refugee.  But if the Sri Lankan government says I’m a threat to their national security I’m less inclined to take seriously their blanket conclusions about who’s on the boat and why they’re there.  I have confidence in our immigration and justice system. Vic Toews is right about one thing: the world is watching.  I’m proudest as a Canadian when we’re setting the right standard for the world.  We didn’t do it in 1914 for the Komagata Maru or in 1939 for the St Louis.  Let’s get it right this time.

Bob Rae is a former member of Parliament and former premier of Ontario.