We Canadians like to apologize. Comedian Rick Mercer once quipped that every border crossing should have a large sign exclaiming: Welcome to Canada – We’re Sorry! For some time now, our government has been offering apologies on our behalf.
On May 27, Prime Minister Trudeau rose in the House to apologize for the internment Italian Canadians during the Second World War. When Italy declared war on Canada in 1940, our government declared 31,000 Italian Canadians enemy aliens and 600 of them were forced into detention camps. It was said they had donated to the Italian Red Cross, written articles supporting fascism, or belonged to unions with fascist ties. None of them, or any of the 31,000 for that matter, were ever charged with a crime.
In May 2019, Prime Minister Trudeau apologized for Poundmaker’s being arrested as part of our government’s reaction to the 1885 Riel Rebellion. Historians subsequently determined that the Cree leader had, in fact, not supported Riel and had tried to stop the violence perpetrated by a group of young Cree men.
Trudeau apologized in 2018 for our government’s turning away 900 German Jews seeking to escape Hitler’s madness. When asked how many Jews should be allowed into Canada the deputy minister of immigration replied, “None is too many.” Our anti-Semitism defeated our humanity and the Holocaust took 254 of those we could have saved.
The Komagata Maru steamed into Vancouver harbour in April 1914. It contained 376 British citizens wishing to make new lives. The problem was that they were Indian Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus. White supremacy beat the heart of the British Columbia’s civil society at the time and the province’s MPs led the charge to have the ship turned away. In May 2016, Prime Minister Trudeau apologized for our government’s actions.
Chinese workers were imported to help construct the Canadian Pacific Railway that built and saved our young country. But when it was done, our government deported many of the navies and, in 1885, instituted a prohibitively expensive head tax to stop Chinese immigration. It remained in place until 1923. In June 2006, Prime Minister Steven Harper apologized for the blatantly racist tax.
In September 1988, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney stood in the House to apologize for the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War. Fears of a fifth column in Canada following Japan’s Pearl Harbour attack were fuelled by the already wide-spread anti-Asian racism. Some 22,000 Japanese Canadians were placed in camps and their property confiscated and sold. They even had to pay for their own incarceration.
These apologies are right and proper. Cultural relativism be damned – those actions taken on our behalf are reprehensible now and were then. Another series of apologies have addressed our original sin.
In June 2008, Prime Minister Harper apologized in the House for residential schools. The Catholic Church established them in the 1840s, the Canadian government began and ran more, and the last one closed in 1996. Think of that – 1996. More than 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Metis kids were kidnapped and forced to attend institutions that were less schools than instruments of cultural genocide. Many children were sexually and physically abused. And, as was recently confirmed near Kamloops, many died and were buried in unmarked graves.
Outside the House, in 2017, Trudeau apologized for Newfoundland’s residential schools. In 2018 he apologized for six Tsilhqot’in chiefs having been offered a peace proposal in 1864 but then being arrested and hanged. In 2019, Trudeau apologized for our government’s shameful reaction to the tuberculosis epidemic among the Inuit that began in the 1940s and lasted twenty years.
Let’s hope the Pope does the right thing and apologizes for the Catholic Church’s role in residential schools. Let’s embrace that and the other apologies as first steps toward atonement, reconciliation, and the building of a better, non-racist society. But at the same time, let’s recognize all the apologies as only that: first steps. Our policies and laws can change. That’s easy. But what was sadly proved yet again by the London tragedy was that nothing of value will be gained until and unless change occurs in our hearts.
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