Should government apologize for past sins?

David Bercuson

The University of Calgary history professor is supportive

 Nations, religious groups and political parties sometimes commit great harms in the course of their development. In the past Canada imposed a residential school system on Aboriginal people that broke up families, imposed non-Aboriginal ways on Aboriginals under threat of punishment and tried to eliminate a social culture that had existed for thousands of years. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, west coast politicians, provincial and federal, imbued with the racism of a century, caused the federal government to banish Japanese-Canadians without a shred of evidence of disloyalty on the part of those citizens, displace them to other provinces and seize their property under the provisions of the War Measures Act of 1914.

When the steamship St. Louis arrived in Canadian waters in 1939 filled with German Jews trying to escape Nazi persecution, the federal government turned the ship away. No Jews were wanted in Canada at that time; anti-Semitism was rampant, especially but not exclusively in Quebec, and the passengers were returned to Europe, where many of them eventually went to Nazi death camps and were slaughtered.

These are but a few of the harms that Canada has inflicted on minorities. Should we apologize to the descendants for the wrongs that were done their ancestors? Ottawa now has done that in each of these cases. The apologies won’t reverse history. Nothing can undo the harms that were done. Apologies do not “correct” history. But they can be powerful symbols to Canadians today that their nation—like other nations—is not perfect, makes terrible mistakes and needs to acknowledge those mistakes in order to allay the hurts done to the people who were victimized and to demonstrate to Canadians today that we acknowledge that great harm was done, that we are sorry for it, and that although we cannot change history, we must learn from it in order not to repeat it.

In 1959 the Roman Catholic Church renounced age-old charges of deicide against Jews, declared that all Jews at the time of Christ were not responsible for his death and neither were Jews in 1959 and, in effect, apologized for 19 centuries of persecution and slaughter. That apology put Catholic–Jewish relations on the road to healing and was followed by Jews and Roman Catholics drawing closer together than ever in history.

There must be conditions to these apologies. They cannot be handed out like transit tickets. They must be reserved for egregious cases. They must reflect real understanding by the perpetrator of the impact on the victims. Some sort of token compensation might accompany the apology. The victims—who may seek further action such as damages—must accept the apology as a first step in moving on. But apologies can be a sure sign of greater national, religious or other maturity. A real apology is an act of the heart. A nation or institution without a heart is empty of humanity.


Mitch Miyagawa

The documentary filmmaker and writer is suspicious

In 1989 My Dad received the first official Canadian government apology. An 11-year-old in 1942, he had been labelled an “enemy alien” and taken from his home in Mission, BC. His parents and older siblings were forced to labour in sugar beet fields near Picture Butte, Alberta. My dad, aunts and uncles didn’t talk much about what had happened. I grew up middle-class in the first decades of official multiculturalism, and that apology was the first time I realized the state was not always—or perhaps ever—a benevolent parent that had my best interests at heart. But my dad never questioned the government. He proudly called himself a Canadian. That pride in a country that stole his family’s life was a contradiction I explored in my 2012 documentary A Sorry State.

Making that film, I realized that government apologies are full of contradictions. On the one hand, they reveal histories of government acts of racism, sexism and colonialism that are at odds with official versions of the national story. In doing so, government apologies are important moments when the truth of our official histories—the ones told in schools, on memorials and in citizenship texts—is called into question, and with it the government’s source of legitimacy.

On the other hand, the illuminating nature of government apologies is always clouded by politics. In many ways, the apologies are strategic acts calibrated for maximum gain. They portray current authorities as appropriately sorry and determined to change things, while making insignificant or token commitments. They avoid implicating the current government, and place all the blame in the past.

I see a government apology as the result of colliding forces: assertions of state-sanctioned injustice and inhumanity, and the state’s attempts to remain the hero in a national myth of progress. Justin Trudeau seems to be trying hard to play that hero, and has made apologies a key element of his statecraft—five official apologies and counting, including for the Komagata Maru incident, the turning away of Jewish refugees in 1939, the oppression of LGBTQ military, and the hanging of several Tsilhqot’in leaders in 1864. The latest apology, in March of this year, was for Canada’s mistreatment of Inuit with tuberculosis.

There’s plenty to be cynical about in all of these apologies, particularly when the 94 Calls to Action that came out of the 2008 Residential School apology and subsequent Truth and Reconciliation Commission have yet to be honoured or implemented. Instead, “reconciliation” has become a government buzzword. We should be wary of the vague political promises and pat-myself-on-the-back subtexts apologies carry.

I’ve decided I’m more about reckoning than reconciliation. While they may be valuable flashes of suppressed historical fact, and serve as emotional release for many people, government apologies now appear to be taking us further from any true reckoning with the consequences of ongoing colonial rule.


David Bercuson Responds to Mitch Miyagawa

Mitch Miyagawa is right to be suspicious of government apologies. And he is correct that government apologies “are strategic acts calibrated for maximum gain.” We must expect politicians to act as politicians, whose chief aim is to protect their jobs and the salaries, benefits, allowances and other plunder that citizens bestow on them. But does that mean that every act of government, especially apologies, can be judged by the same standard? That would be to reduce them to the same base considerations.

Government apologies must be limited to clear cases of injustice committed in the past that did great harm to specific people and that are considered unacceptable by the ethical, moral and social standards of today. Apologies should never be issued frivolously.

For example, economic and social policies of the 19th century did great harm to working-class Canadians, but they were part of the wealth-producing ideas of their day. If an entrepreneur built a factory in the 19th century with inadequate safety measures to protect the lives, let alone the welfare, of the workers who laboured there, should a government today issue an apology? No. Because by the standards of that day, health and safety of workers weren’t considered necessary and just parameters of employment, even by most workers themselves. Today such working conditions are considered essential to the employment of factory workers. Expectations evolved because of the growth of trade unions, the election of progressive governments, changing social values and the realization that the basic economic costs of the lack of a safe and healthy work environment far outstrip the costs of creating that environment.

The same measure should be applied to any historical act of government, or lack of action. After all, we recognize degrees of culpability in our criminal law, and such degrees stretch back to Biblical times with the Ten Commandments and the Code of Hammurabi. Governments can be benevolent or they can be wicked or anything in between; not all actions of government are the same.

So too in the evil or malevolent acts of government. Some of those acts may be so heinous as to cause grave injustices to particular groups of people, injustices that were not deserved at the time or have since been condemned in the court of history. The words of Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court John Roberts in 2018, in referring to the 1944 case Korematsu vs. the United States (decided against Fred Korematsu by the US Supreme Court) are relevant here. Korematsu had challenged the internment of 120,000 Japanese by the Roosevelt government but lost his case because the Supreme Court decided the government had knowledge of security issues that overrode Korematsu’s civil rights. In 2018 Roberts spoke for the majority of the court in deciding to uphold President Donald Trump’s partial travel ban on people from Muslim countries, which Justice Sotomayor, speaking for the minority, had cited as equivalent to the Korematsu case. Roberts declared: “The dissent’s reference to Korematsu… affords this court the opportunity to make express what is already obvious: Korematsu was gravely wrong the day it was decided, has been overruled in the court of history, and—to be clear—has no place in law under the Constitution.” In other words, Roberts declared that the Supreme Court had been wrong in 1944 and that any reference to the decision to dissent against government action now is invalid.

The United States issued an apology to the Japanese-American community in 1988. At that time, President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act. The Act acknowledged the more than 100,000 people of Japanese descent who were imprisoned in US internment camps during the Second World War. The legislation also paid out $20,000 in compensation to each surviving victim.

In this case, and in the case of Canada’s expulsion of Japanese citizens from the west coast in 1942, there was never any evidence that any of the people wronged had any intention of doing harm to Canada or the US. The motive for removing their civil rights in both countries was a racism that had lingered from the mid-19th century.

In the case of the St. Louis in 1939, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King sympathized with the plight of the Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany but bowed to the then-deep anti-Semitism of many Québécois, as expressed by his minister of justice, Ernest Lapointe. The ship and its 900 refugees were denied permission to land in Canada. In King’s mind, evidently, alienating large numbers of Quebec voters was just not worth the lives of the St. Louis passengers.

In the case of Canada’s Aboriginal people, the 19th-century practice of suppressing Indigenous identity was widespread as a legitimate way for government to deal with the racial and social issues involved with western settlement. “Make Them All White Men” was the solution, and few Canadians took any notice, let alone protested against such action.

Now that official racist, anti-Semitic and anti-Indigenous policies are no longer acceptable to Canadians—or Canadian law—government apologies are past due. But apologies should never be handed out gratuitously, to any group who claims to have been discriminated against in the past, for frivolous political reasons. With politicians and governments, that is always a danger.

Apologies must be limited to cases of injustice in the past considered unacceptable by the ethical, moral and social standards of today.


Mitch Miyagawa Responds to David Bercuson

I respect that David Bercuson wants to address historical oppression and atrocity meaningfully. I was struck by a few things he wrote. I’ll use those points to expand on why I don’t want to see more government apologies.

First, he writes that “apologies demonstrate to Canadians… that great harm was done, that we are sorry for it, and that although we cannot change history, we must learn from it in order not to repeat it.” As I wrote originally, I do see value in creating more accurate stories about Canada, its origins and its current colonial state. I consider, for instance, the impact that the 2008 residential school apology and the Truth and Reconciliation process had on me. To see the scope of the damage of residential schools—and realize how these schools were, and are, part of a systematic campaign against Indigenous people—so clearly laid out, for all to see, was shattering.

While I agree with Bercuson that apologies acknowledge historical harm in a beneficial way, I’m troubled by the line “we cannot change history.” History isn’t something written in a book that’s locked away in a glass cabinet. It exists materially in the land around us, in our houses, in our villages and towns and cities. It’s in the way we relate to each other, and it exists in the stories we tell about ourselves and where we live. We carry history with us. I believe we can change it.

Governments already change official stories through acknowledging systemic abuse, racist policies or theft of land. But they put forward similar fatalist assumptions as Bercuson in their apologies—that nothing can really be done about what has happened.

There are two parts to an apology—setting the story straight, and action. The action is to restore dignity, respect, relationship and whatever was stolen. Governments miss this second part and purposefully misdirect our attention away from it.

On that note, Bercuson writes that “token compensation” might be a part of apologies, but nowhere mentions real, meaningful action. Only that a government might “learn.” He’s quite right that this is how governments prefer to apologize. Look closely at the ways governments try to “action” apologies through purely financial and symbolic means—in other words, token compensation. For instance, has Trudeau, for all his apologetic ways, made any significant response to the 94 Calls to Action in the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation plan? If a government can’t move beyond mere compensation for pain, then how are we to ever trust any further apologies?

Finally, Bercuson suggests that these “great harms” are a natural part of a nation’s “development” on the road to “maturity.” I see a direct link between the idea of nations as forever growing, progressing and developing, and the ways our heads of state always make themselves the champion in the story of progress. I’m concerned that Bercuson is suggesting that “boys will be boys,” painting a picture of an “immature” nation making “understandable” errors and hurting others. Reading the argument as a whole, I worry Bercuson doesn’t see the difference between “apology” and “excuse.”

Fans of government apologies might argue that Canadian governments are actually limited in what they can do. Governments are actually capable of changing a lot, and suddenly. Power can be redistributed on a large scale. But for now (thankfully) we have a system where one head is never strong enough to do that. A head is always scared it will get chopped off and replaced by another one.

The Canadian government has a body, too, made up of departments, sections and branches, fuelled by money and trade, functioning to regulate and control populations through various means: police, law, ways we are permitted to live, culture, history. The body has remained the same since Confederation, and though it may have evolved, it is still only fundamentally capable of governing in certain ways.

This is the situation for government apologies. A 150-year-old body with a new head every four years tries to convince its citizens of its own reform by way of serial apology—an “apology,” in this case, play-acted, without real consequence.

Horrors in Canada’s past live on today. Look at how the Indigenous dispossession and residential schools continue to have intergenerational effects, including high rates of addiction, children in care and incarceration. I do see hope to address these. But I see it on the ground, in the local and in the individual, not in the national or governmental. I see it in people that live together, geographically and socially.

As individuals and groups of individuals, we live in specific places and specific circumstances, not abstract. It’s up to us to make local cultures of respect, because it’s not something you can legislate or manage or order. I want to live in a culture of respect that individuals feel inside them and hold dearly, a culture that comes from belonging to a place, and seeing it as a real home. A local culture, based in community.

In this culture apologies would mean something. They’d be about communities getting healthy enough to talk to other communities, individuals getting healthy enough to get real with other individuals, and figuring out meaningful reckonings and actions. People are trying to do just this near where I live on the west coast. I don’t doubt people are trying this elsewhere too. Local community apologies wouldn’t be about relying on government to “have a heart,” as Bercuson wrote. They would start with our own hearts and those hearts around us.


Should government apologize for past sins?

David Bercuson The University of Calgary history professor is supportive  Nations, religious groups and political parties sometimes commit great harms in the course of their development. In the past Canada imposed a residential school system on Aboriginal people that broke up families, imposed non-Aboriginal ways on Aboriginals under threat of punishment and ...

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