Globe & Mail: June 28: Apologies Have Power
Here is the Op-Ed piece from this week's Globe & Mail. Erna Paris is the author of Long Shadows: Truth,
Lies, and History. She
gives a nicely balance arguement for apologies having a healing and
progressive course of action for our country and society. Enjoy –
Apologies have power
Wednesday, June 28, 2006
Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized to Chinese-Canadians last week, a
barrage of criticism focused on the prospect of “victims” lining up
at the public trough. Most missed the central point: confirmation that human
rights still matter in this country.
Canadians knew about the punishing head tax imposed on 15,000 Chinese workers
brought here to build the CPR? How many knew up to 1,000 of these men died
during this back-breaking labour? Or that families were divided because Canada refused
to allow wives and children of those who had raised the money to join them?
Without formal recognition of injustice, the darker side of a nation's past is
unlikely to make it into school history texts, which are the bedrock of the
ethnically mixed society, social adhesion is threatened without a public
acknowledgment that the state, itself, maltreated minorities living within its
borders. Although those of us who were not affected by head taxes, residential
schools, or wartime internment as “enemy aliens” may spend little
time thinking about this “other” history, Canadians who were have not
forgotten. The story of maltreatment is passed down from generation to
generation, until the survivors, or their progeny, have the courage to demand
formal redress. State-instigated human-rights abuses live in a category of
their own, as the history of the 20th century makes abundantly clear.
Unaddressed, they are increasingly corrosive to the body politic. When
addressed, they contribute to healing and, by extension, national unity. It is
no surprise an elderly Chinese-Canadian interviewed on the day of the apology
declared that she finally felt she was a Canadian.
Trudeau said he and his government were not responsible for Canada's past,
only its future. He was wrong. It matters not one whit whether human rights
abuses were carried out yesterday, or decades ago. Those who occupy the seats
of power today carry, and are responsible for addressing, yesterday's corrosive
legacy, for the unreconciled past inevitably sends long tendrils into the
countries have also begun to acknowledge that at a time when human rights were
undervalued, or not valued at all, their governments committed grave abuses
that decades later, threaten national unity. In France,
for example, President Jacques Chirac formally apologized for the actions of
the collaborationist Vichy
regime, which willingly assisted the Nazis in deporting 78,000 Jews to death
camps. His courageous acknowledgment ended decades of official myth-making and
prevarication that was taught to children as factual history. France also
held criminal trials for the German Nazi, Klaus Barbie; the French Nazi, Paul
Touvier; and the bureaucratic paper-pusher, Maurice Papon, who signed away
thousands of lives with a flourish of his pen. This reversal in policy came
about because a few survivors of the deportations never forgot that the country
of their birth had betrayed them, and neither did their children. They
correctly believed that France
would be unable to normalize its present until it was willing to acknowledge
what had been carried out in the state's name.
Japan, on the
contrary, has never formally apologized to the families of those who survived
the Rape of Nanking in 1937, among many other atrocities; in fact, Japan's Prime
Minister makes provocative visits to a Shinto shrine where the
“souls” of several convicted war criminals are glorified. This
unresolved tear in the historical fabric has affected relations between Japan and China.
cannot afford to ignore the state-inspired cruelty of the past. Which is not to
deny that reason and balance must reign. More than half a century ago, the
fledgling United Nations published the Universal Declaration of Human Rights —
the key word being “universal.” These must be the foundational
yardstick for assessing claims against the Canadian government.
acknowledgments, memorials, museums that tell the truth about the past, and token
reparations to surviving victims are symbolic ways of separating the unlovely
past from the present. And for promoting unity among the diverse peoples of Canada.
Erna Paris is the author of Long Shadows: Truth,
Lies, and History.