Man who urinated on Vancouver memorial may have committed a hate crime

On a day Canadians reflect on the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela, we have word of a man urinating on a Vancouver memorial intended to remind us about the effects of racism.

Last Monday, Pargan Mattu of Surrey, B.C., was showing a visiting friend the memorial to the infamous Komagata Maru incident, which in 1914 saw almost 400 mostly Sikh immigrants from India turned away from Canada after spending two months confined to the Japanese vessel anchored in Vancouver's Coal Harbour.

The incident is commemorated by a memorial unveiled in 2012 near the harbour in downtown Vancouver. It's a blown-up photograph of Komagata Maru passengers accompanied by an account of what happened.

As Mattu and his friend took in the memorial and snapped photos, a man approached the monument and threw a soccer ball at it.

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When Mattu challenged the man, he went up to the monument and urinated on it, ignoring Mattu's warning that he was taking photos and would call the police.

Vancouver police spokesman Const. Randy Fincham told CTV News the department's hate crimes unit would become involved in the investigation, which has outraged members of Metro Vancouver's sizable South Asian community.

The suspect, a white man who was still being sought, faces a potential charge of mischief. But it could qualify as a hate crime if the man knew the significance of the memorial when he flipped down his grubby sweat pants. It was suggested the dishevelled-looking man was drunk.

“We’re hopeful at this point that this is a misguided person that didn’t recognize the impact that this had,” Fincham said.

A hate crime is not an offence in such a case, Const. Brian Montague added, but would be an aggravating factor in sentencing, the Vancouver Sun reported.

Mattu said he has no doubt it was a hate crime.

“If we were not there maybe he wouldn’t do this,” Mattu told Vancouver Desi. “I was very upset.”

Vancouver Park Board chairwoman Sarah Blyth condemned the desecration of the memorial.

"On behalf of my fellow Commissioners, we are saddened and deeply offended by this disgraceful act,” she said in a statement on the board's Facebook page.

"The monument was created in partnership with the Khalsa Diwan Society to embrace multiculturalism and remind people about the devastating impact that racial intolerance and discrimination have had upon our community.”

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Park board commissioner Niki Sharma said workers cleaned the urine from the memorial.

Sharma, whose parents emigrated from India, called the incident "awful."

"As I learned about the history of our laws you learn about how these laws particularly discriminated against South Asians from coming into Canada," Sharma told the Vancouver Sun. "If they didn't change, if we didn't change and open our minds up to different cultures in the society we are today — I wouldn't even be here."

The Komagata Maru, normally a coal freighter, arrived in Vancouver Harbour May 23, 1914, carrying 376 Indians who were British subjects.

Vancouver at the time was a scene of virulent racial prejudice, with sometimes violent hostility directed towards Chinese, Japanese and South Asian immigrants, who were seen as job-stealers.

The federal government tried to quash immigration from India, pushing steamship companies to stop selling tickets to Indians. A series of laws and other measures stripped Indian residents of the right to vote and work in certain professions.

The B.C. government also legislated restrictions, including a requirement newcomers had to have $200 to land (a fortune for an Indian at the time) and to have come direct from India.

The Komagata Maru's journey was intended by its organizers to challenge B.C.'s exclusion laws. The ship made several stops before sailing for Canada. Awaiting its arrival, local newspapers whipped up hysteria about a "Hindu Invasion."

When the ship dropped anchor, its passengers were not allowed to get off. Most did not have the required $200 and had not sailed directly from India. Authorities denied them food and water, though some supplies made it aboard.

Attempts by mobs and police to drive the ship away were repelled by passengers who had taken control of the vessel. After two months, a vessel of the newly-formed Royal Canadian Navy pointed its cannon at the Komagata Maru and forced it to sail. Only 20 passengers, who had established Canadian-resident status, were allowed to stay.

The ordeal didn't end there. On returning to Calcutta in September, the passengers were ordered put on a special train to Punjab. when they refused and tried to march into the city, police opened fire, killing 20 passengers and wounding nine others.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized on behalf of Canada for the Komagata Maru incident in 2008.