Melanie Hardbattle (SFU Archivist)
Special to The Post
His body was brought to the undertakers, where it was bathed according to the Sikh religious rites and then in a hearse was carried to the B.C.E.R. Depot, where about four or five hundred Sikhs were standing to pray for the soul of the dead. To take revenge on killings of two Ghadar party members — Bhag Singh and Badan Singh — whose names are recorded in the history books as the first two martyrs of the movement in Canada, Mewa had in October 1914 killed William Charles Hopkinson, a British immigration inspector working in Canada. Charged for Hopkinsons's murder, Mewa was hanged in New Westminster jail in January 1915 Before the funeral procession started, a photograph was taken and then the procession followed the hearse to the Fraser Mills, BC, singing hymns, notwithstanding the heavy rain." - Mitt Singh quoted in The New Advertiser, January 14, 1915. Recently, while looking through one of the collections at Simon Fraser University (SFU) Library’s Special Collections & Rare Books, I came across a photograph of a procession that I had never seen before.
This procession followed the execution of Mewa Singh at the New Westminster, British Columbia jail on the morning of January 11, 1915. Singh was hanged for the murder of Canadian Immigration Inspector William Charles Hopkinson in a hallway of the Vancouver Court House on October 21, 1914, a crime to which he freely admitted his guilt.
The murder of Hopkinson was the culmination of a mounting animosity between some members of the South Asian community in BC and the Immigration Department, tensions that had been brought to a boiling point a few months earlier during an incident involving the passengers of a Japanese vessel named Komagata Maru. Chartered by an Indian businessman, Gurdit Singh, the ship arrived in Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet from Hong Kong on May 23, 1914 with 376 passengers, most originating from Punjab.
Aimed at curbing Indian immigration to Canada, the Continuous Passage regulation stated that immigrants must “come from the country of their birth, or citizenship, by a continuous journey and on through tickets purchased before leaving the country of their birth, or citizenship.” They were also required to have at least $200 in their possession at the time of arrival. The legislation had a drastic impact on the South Asian population in British Columbia, resulting in a decrease of almost 60%, from 6,000 to 2,200, in the two years following its enactment.
With the exception of twenty returning residents, and the ship’s doctor and his family, the passengers were prevented from disembarking by the Canadian authorities. Despite the assistance of a Shore Committee representing the local South Asian community and Vancouver lawyer J.E. Bird, the ship and its passengers were kept in the harbour for two months before they were escorted out by the Canadian military on July 23, 1914 and forced to back to India. Upon the ship’s arrival in India, a skirmish broke out between the passengers and British soldiers, resulting in the death of nineteen passengers. Many of the remaining passengers were either jailed or confined to their villages for several years.
Following the departure of the Komagata Maru, several murders and assassination attempts occurred in Vancouver, and on September 5, 1914, one of Hopkinson’s informants, Bela Singh, entered the Second Avenue Sikh Temple and shot seven people, killing two. Mewa Singh, a sawmill worker who had immigrated to Canada in 1906, had encountered Hopkinson and Bela Singh the previous June with regard to some legal charges that had been filed against him for smuggling firearms across the Canada-US border. Mewa Singh witnessed the shootings and in his statement at trial he blamed Hopkinson and Reid for “all this trouble and all this shooting.” He claimed that he “shot Mr. Hopkinson out of honor and principle to my fellow men, and for my religion. I could not bear to see these troubles going on any longer.”
Since his death nearly 100 years ago, Mewa Singh has been venerated as a martyr within the South Asian community. The court house where the murder occurred is currently home to the Vancouver Art Gallery and it is said that Hopkinson’s ghost still roams the hallways to this day.