Apologies and Reconciliation

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.

(Photo: Ottawa Citizen)

            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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The Courage that Changed Nations

Courage changes lives. We are surrounded by a million acts of personal courage but nearly all are unseen and unsung. There is the courage of the shy boy raising his hand in the classroom and the timid girl clenching her jaw and walking on to the playground when, for many girls, it is a battlefield. There is the courage of the single Mom somehow managing another morning of scurrying kids to school and herself to work while wondering if there will be more month than money. Courage is not the absence of fear but the presence of determination. Courage is the world’s greatest agent of change.

Courage changes also nations.

In 1990, secret meetings between Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and provincial and territorial leaders led to the Meech Lake Accord. The short document detailed a series of constitutional changes that shifted significant power from the federal government. It was designed to seduce Quebec into doing what it had refused to do nine years before and sign Canada’s new Constitution with its embedded Charter of Rights and Freedoms. One by one, provincial and territorial governments ratified the Meech Lake deal before its looming June 23 deadline. No one expected what happened next.

The speaker of Manitoba’s legislature asked for unanimous consent to waive a two-day waiting period and immediately begin the ratification debate. Alone among his colleagues, with an eagle feather in hand, Elijah Harper said no. Harper was an Ojibwa-Cree and former Chief of the Red Sucker Lake Community. His bold action in the House that day reflected the anger of many Aboriginal people who were upset that they had been left out of the process that created the Meech Lake Accord and that its constitutional changes ignored their concerns. Their historic concerns and pleas for respect had not been dismissed by those who designed the constitutional accord. Worse. Their concerns and pleas had not even crossed their minds. Harper’s no paralyzed the legislature. It stunned the country.

The legitimate concerns of Aboriginal nations had not been dismissed by those who designed the constitutional accord. Worse. The concerns had not even crossed their minds. Then Harper’s no paralyzed the legislature. It stunned the country.

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(Photo: Rabble.ca)

The next day, the speaker again asked for unanimous consent. Again, Mr. Harper said no. Eight times he said no until the clock ran out. The debate never happened. Newfoundland’s premier then refused to bring his legislature to a vote. Meech Lake was dead.

Prime Minister Mulroney was enraged, thought Harper was stupid, but understood the magnitude of what had just changed. He set to work constructing a new series of constitutional amendments that would become the Charlottetown Accord. This time, though, Mulroney sought a broader consensus. He ensured that Aboriginal people were part of the consultation and decision-making process.

Native nations spoke with many voices and all were heard. The Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapirisat of Canada, the Native Council of Canada, and the Métis National Council all participated in consultations and helped shape the final document.

The accord presented to the Canadian people in a 2009 referendum stated that, after a three-year waiting period, Aboriginal peoples would be granted self-government. Treaty rights would be entrenched in the Constitution. This time, however, for reasons that had little to do with Native participation or promises made, it was the Canadian peoples’ turn to say no.  The Charlottetown Accord was tossed on history’s scrap heap atop Meech Lake.

But a change had happened. Harper’s lesson was learned. The Charlottetown consultations had brought Aboriginal issues to the forefront of Canada’s civic conversation. Afterward, a Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples allowed a national airing of history’s insults, crimes, and atrocities. It led to a federal law that met Charlottetown’s promise: the recognition of the inherent right of Aboriginal self-government and a constitutional recognition of treaty rights. Parliament issued an apology for the unforgivable horrors of the government and church-run residential schools.

Aboriginal nations were now in the halls of power with more of their concerns recognized and better understood. But where laws and hearts must walk in tandem, change is slow. Many infuriatingly complex problems still face Aboriginal peoples and shape their place within Canada. Problems three hundred years in the making are not being quickly solved. But they are no longer ignored, and, despite occasional setbacks, there is steady, often begrudging, but determined progress.

A year after his brave stand in the Manitoba legislature, Elijah Harper received the prestigious Stanley Knowles Humanitarian Award. It was the same award given by the Canadian parliament to Nelson Mandela for the courage he showed in helping to end South Africa’s apartheid. Harper accepted the award with the same quiet, humility with which he had sat with his eagle feather and said no. Courage, after all, is neither brash nor boastful. Courage acknowledges doubt and fear but refuses to be cowed by them. It is the humility of the shy boy, timid girl, and single Mom who summon quiet courage to change and shape their lives. It is the courage of Mr. Harper who changed the Canadian nation and Aboriginal nations by placing them on the road to where they should always have been.

Redemption’s road is long and rocky but we must all summon the courage to travel it and to do so together. Let the drinking water be cleaned, let the children be educated, let the murdered and missing women be investigated, recognized, and mourned, let the treaties be obeyed, the land respected, and respect ensured. As the courageous Mr. Harper knew, it’s been too long, but it’s not too late.

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