Two different takes -John Ivison: With another apology, Trudeau tries to right — and rewrite — the past, Emma Teitel: Formal apologies may be most useful not for the oppressed, but for the clueless

Interesting contrast between Ivison, going back to Pierre Trudeau’s position, and Emma Teitel’s greater recognition of the value. Starting with Ivison:

In the early 1940s, Pierre Elliott Trudeau flirted with politics that, in the words of his esteemed biographer John English, were “not only anti-war and anti-Liberal, but also clandestine, highly nationalist and, at least momentarily, separatist and even violent.”

In a speech in support of a nationalist candidate in a Montreal by-election, Trudeau minimized the German threat and, according to Le Devoir, said he feared “the peaceful invasion of immigrants more than the armed invasion of the enemy.

“Bring on the revolution,” he concluded.

It should be noted the immigrants he feared in Montreal in those days were mainly Jews.

None of the above reflects well on the current Prime Minister’s father. But as English noted, Trudeau was party to the kind of half-baked plotting that was common in the basements of middle-class houses in Montreal — plots that no-one ever dreamed of acting on. “This was the spirit of the age,” said English, in his peerless book Citizen of the World.

Perhaps at some future date Trudeau’s actions will be used as a pretext to remove his name from Montreal’s airport or from the high school in Markham, Ont., that bears his name. The spirit of today’s age is a revisionism that never ends — the application of today’s mores to periods in history when ethics and standards were very different.

In isolation, Trudeau senior’s comments are shocking. But thankfully they do not stand in isolation. Separatism, revolutionary politics and racism were not his legacies. Quite the contrary.

His comments were made in the context of the time and place in which they were made — and they were decidedly unexceptional for the era.

Yet the current Liberal government is encouraging this impulse toward “presentism” — by changing the name of the Langevin Block that houses the Prime Minister’s Office in Ottawa (named after Hector-Louis Langevin, a Father of Confederation and strong proponent of the residential school system) and through its apparent attempt to break the world record for official apologies.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Wednesday that he looks forward to offering a formal apology on the floor of the House of Commons for the turning away of a boat full of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany in 1939 — the result of a “discriminatory ‘none is too many’ immigration policy.”

Make no mistake, the decision to turn away the MS St. Louis, with its 907 German Jewish passengers, is a stain on Canada’s history. A historic injustice was done and it should be held in the collective memory to guard against a revival in anti-Semitic sentiment.

But does a formal apology really ensure those mistakes are not repeated?

Arguably, an apology allows the government to turn the page and hope everyone forgets the inconvenient past.

Are they sincere? At one point during question period on Wednesday, Trudeau blustered that he would not apologize for Canada “swaggering” on the world stage. That would seem to be about the only thing for which he is not apologizing.

The MS St. Louis mea culpa will be the fourth delivered by this prime minister. We have already had formal apologies for the Komagata Maru incident, in which another ship carrying Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus was denied entry to Canada in 1914 because of the immigration laws at the time; to residential school students in Newfoundland and Labrador; and to members of the military and federal public service who were persecuted because of their sexual orientation.

It is hard to escape the feeling that political expediency is at work for the Liberals; each apology was targeted at a key political constituency — Sikh, LGBTQ, Indigenous and Jewish Canadians.

That is not a partisan point — Stephen Harper made apologies to Canada’s Chinese community for the imposition of a head tax, which looked electorally motivated, and to its Indigenous population for residential schools, which was perhaps less so.

History exists in context and should not be rewritten or tampered with to suit political ends.

This was recognized by the current prime minister’s father, who in 1984 resisted pressures to apologize to, and compensate, Japanese Canadians who were interned and stripped of their property during the Second World War.

“I do not think the purpose of a government is to right the past. It cannot rewrite history. It is our purpose to be just in our time,” he told the House of Commons.

Prophetically, he worried that once the government started down the path, there would be no end to the apologies and the compensation demanded.

“I know we’d have to go back a great length of time in our history and look at all the injustices,” he said.

Pierre Trudeau, more than most, appreciated that it is often the spirit of the age that is responsible for injustice — and that apologies do not erase iniquity.

Source: John Ivison: With another apology, Trudeau tries to right — and rewrite — the past

Teitel focusses on the educational value of such apologies:

Since its release in 1970, many people (married ones especially) have taken issue with the signature line from the hit movie Love Story: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” But I imagine the person most constitutionally averse to this notion is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a man who says sorry more often than a Canadian tourist in a crowded airport.

Where his Prime Minister father, the late Pierre Trudeau, wasn’t a fan of state-issued apologies, our rueful leader appears quite comfortable doling them out.

The PM has made a series of official apologies addressing various historical wrongs since he took office in 2015. Two years ago, for example, he issued an apology for the 1914 Komagata Maru incident, in which hundreds of Sikh, Muslim and Hindu passengers were unjustly turned away at the Canadian border. Their Japanese steamship returned to India, where 19 passengers were shot and killed upon arrival and many others imprisoned.

Last year, the PM issued an apology to survivors of Canada’s residential schools. He also asked the Pope himself to apologize for the church’s role in operating the notoriously exploitative, abusive institutions. (Unfortunately, the pope declined).

And just this week the PM announced plans to formally apologize on behalf of the Canadian government, in the House of Commons, for the tragic incident of the MS St. Louis in 1939, when Canada refused asylum to the more than 900 Jewish German refugees on board. The MS St. Louis was forced to return to Europe, where 254 of its passengers were later murdered in the Holocaust.

“When Canada denied asylum to the 907 German Jews on board the MS St. Louis,” Trudeau said in a recent statement, “we failed not only those passengers, but also their descendants and community. It is our collective responsibility to acknowledge this difficult truth, learn from this story, and continue to fight against anti-Semitism every day, as we give meaning to the solemn vow: ‘Never again.’ I look forward to offering this apology on the floor of the House.”

Unfortunately, not everybody is looking forward to hearing it.

Many critics of the Prime Minister, some of them Jewish, are a little annoyed by the prospect of a staged mea culpa that will address a tragic event whose victims are, by and large, not around to receive it. Some of these formal apologies are, after all, rather bizarre, because the people saying “I’m sorry” are so rarely the wrongdoers and the people saying “I forgive you” are rarely the wronged. As a result, they can come off as cheap and hollow, even to the ears of the people you think might appreciate them most.

Here’s Sally Zerker, whose Jewish, Polish ancestors were denied visas to Canada in the 1930’s, writing about the prospect of a government apology for the MS. St. Louis tragedy in the Canadian Jewish News last year:

“It will not bring back my relatives, or offer me any solace. Instead, it will whitewash a government that did nothing to help the Jews who were fleeing the Nazis and ignored the type of anti-Semitism that was endemic in Canada until the 1970s. Ultimately, it is nothing but a shallow, empty, meaningless act. An apology can’t right this wrong.”

But it can publicize it. And this is where I disagree with Zerker and other critics of government apologies. We’re living in a world where the United States government appears allergic to facts and routinely winks at white supremacists. A world where the leaders of the women’s march, arguably the largest feminist movement on the continent, can pal around with horrendous anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan and retain their status as heroines of an intersectional movement.

A world where, according to the Anti Defamation League, anti-Semitic hate crimes — from violent assaults, to Jewish kids being harassed at school, to vandalism of synagogues — surged 57 per cent last year. Meanwhile, according to a survey released on Holocaust Remembrance Day (Jan. 27) this year, 22 per cent of American millennials haven’t heard of the Holocaust or are unsure of what it is, and two-thirds do not know what Auschwitz is.

All of this is to say that while I agree with Trudeau’s critics that formal apologies are sometimes silly and performative — and perhaps lacking in meaning for some victims and their families — they are also factual and newsworthy. They breathe new life into old wrongs and in doing so they bring awareness to those wrongs.

It’s for this reason that I find it difficult to object to a perfectly harmless government statement that might, even if it doesn’t heal any wounds, inspire an uninformed Canadian to Google “MS St. Louis.”

It’s a sorry thing to say, but formal apologies may be most useful not for the oppressed, but for the clueless.

Source: Emma Teitel: Formal apologies may be most useful not for the oppressed, but for the clueless

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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