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Historical tug up for sale

A Surrey foundation is being forced to sell the Sea Lion VI, a tugboat that took part in the 1914  Komagata Maru incident. - PHOTO SUBMITTED
A Surrey foundation is being forced to sell the Sea Lion VI, a tugboat that took part in the 1914 Komagata Maru incident.
— image credit: PHOTO SUBMITTED

The infamous Canadian tugboat that helped turn away 376 Indians in 1914 is up for auction again after a Surrey-based foundation’s plans to turn it into a museum piece fell through.

The Sea Lion VI, B.C.’s oldest tug at 105 years old, will hit the auction block May 22 in Surrey.

What makes the boat unique is the role it played in turning back the Komagata Maru, the steamship that carried a group of passengers from the Punjab, India who wanted to immigrate here. When the ship arrived in Burrard Inlet, the passengers were prohibited from stepping onto Canadian soil, and after two months off the B.C. shore, with little food or water, they were forced to turn around and head back to India. Upon arrival, many were injured and 20 were killed in a riot with police.

When the tugboat was auctioned off in 2006, a Surrey historical society, the Komagata Maru Heritage Foundation, bought it for more than $750,000.

It has been sitting at the Vancouver Maritime Museum ever since, and Harbhajan Singh Gill, president of the foundation, was counting on it staying there until his group could build their own museum.

They’re still years away from having a building to commemorate the Komagata Maru incident and the Maritime Museum is slated to close next year, to be replaced in North Vancouver by a National Maritime Centre.

Without a place to keep the tugboat, and with a monthly cost of $5,000 to insure and moor it, Gill had to make the difficult decision to let it go.

“Hopefully somebody puts it to good use for a few years and then we’ll be able to get it back,” said Gill, who thinks somebody will buy it for use during the 2010 Olympics.

The announcement of the auction to sell the Sea Lion comes the same week the federal government is vowing to formally apologize to the Indo-Canadian community for the 1914 incident and for the government’s exclusionary immigration policies of the time.

Gill is happy Prime Minister Stephen Harper is reiterating the promise he made two years ago, but he’s disappointed there’s no actual apology and no date of when it will be fulfilled, or when the community will get the expected $2.5 million for commemorative projects.

Gill hopes the money will go to keep the memory of the Komagata Maru alive, even if it’s a dark spot on Canada’s record.

“It’s important (to remember) so people understand what took place 94 years ago. Our kids don’t know what happened. I’m hoping we’ll be able to set up a curriculum in which the kids can learn about all the people coming to Canada,” Gill said.

Rex Kary sold the boat to Gill’s foundation in 2006, and he’s officially the owner again, though both parties will get some money back once the boat’s sold.

Kary bought it in 2000 after it was beached. He poured money into refurbishing it and had planned to turn it into part of an eco-tourism project. He decided to get into the energy business instead, and used the 130-foot Sea Lion for trips with family and friends up the coast, according to his spokesperson Alyn Edwards.

The auction is May 22, starting at 8 a.m., at 12021 Musqueam Dr. For more information, visit www.rbauction.com.

cmacbride@surreyleader.com

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