Published in the Montreal Gazette on June 12, and the Victoria Times Colonist on June 13, 2014
It seems that not a day goes by without an apology being issued by governments of one level or another for the past misdoings of our ancestors. Why just recently the provincial government of British Columbia made a formal act of contrition for the various injustices inflicted on Canadians of Chinese origin during the preceding century. (“B.C. apologizes to Chinese – Canadians”, The Gazette, May 16, 2014, A-10)
Make no mistake about it, these were indeed real affronts suffered by many desiring to come to Canada and call it home. In fact, what was not mentioned in Dirk Meissner’s report was that the $500 head tax paid in 1914 by Shui Lee’s great-great-grandfather was in real 2014 currency just slightly over $10,000. Not brought up as well was that although the official tally of Chinese labourers killed while working on the transcontinental railway in the early 1880’s is set at 1000, many believe the number to be higher – much higher.
No, it goes without saying that there are very real grounds for an apology to those many who have suffered wrongs in this country. The fact of the matter is, however, that the mea culpa should have come from those responsible for these tragic events and policies, instead of from people who were not alive at the time they were committed.
Some would argue that it is a case of better late than never. Others might suggest that it is a question feeling good about what we are doing.
It seems to me that it is more the latter rationalization.
Indeed, it is a relatively facile thing to do when we express regret for the errors of other governments that were around in other times. One benefit of such an approach is that it allows us the opportunity to turn public attention away from some of the contentious issues with which we are dealing today, and about which we ourselves may be harshly judged by others a hundred years from now.
Take as merely one example, the case of the 1200 or so aboriginal women who have either been killed or have gone missing in Western Canada in the last 30 years (“All of the world’s females deserve justice”, Gazette, May 16, 2014, A-12). While the issue is surely complex, there appears to be a consensus that the subject would have been taken far more seriously if these females had been Caucasian.
True, the Harper Government did apologize to indigenous Canadians for the disgraceful history of residential schools in this country. People understandably felt virtuous that this was done and yet conveniently forgot the fact that this identical administration cancelled, immediately after coming to power in January of 2006, the much sought after and intensely negotiated Kelowna Accord. Easier to express regret about the past than dig deep into your pockets today to help finance a multi-billion dollar education, health, and social programme discussed over an 18-month period.
On June 29, 1984, in his last appearance in the House of Commons, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was asked by then Opposition Leader Brian Mulroney if he would extend an apology to Canadians of Japanese origin for the harsh treatment they suffered in this country during World War II. “I do not see how I can apologize for some historic event to which we were not a party,” responded laconically the departing prime minister. Moreover, Trudeau asserted on that same occasion that if you express regret, and financially compensate one group, you might very well end up with an awfully long line of applicants. Events later proved him correct.
How far back in history should we go in expressing regret for the actions of others? Should we track down the descendants of those youngsters, innocent victims of child labour, and compensate them for the extreme cruelty their forebears suffered in the cotton mills of Edwardian Montreal? Should we go further back in time and apologize and recompense the Acadians for the dastardly Deportation of 1755? The list is endless.
Better to build a newer world and sort out the countless inequities about us today than to rummage around in the unalterable past looking for ways to make us feel better about acting contrite for other people’s mistakes.
Below, Stephen Harper in one of his choreographed yet meaningless photo-ops………………