Canada’s new ‘dark chapter’: So many national apologies for past injustice, they’ve become insincere

An overly cynical take on apologies and recognition by the academic Angie Wong of York. They are meaningful to many in the affected communities and the use of the same or similar language does not necessarily diminish their impact. And in all cases, this was driven by pressure from the communities themselves, as was the Historical Recognition Program under the Harper government:

In their 2007 book How To Be A Canadian (Even If You Already Are One), the humourists Ian and Will Ferguson suggested there are 12 versions of the Canadian “sorry.”

They are: simple, essential, occupational, subservient, aristocratic, demonstrative, libidinous, ostentatious, mythical, unrepentant, sympathetic and authentic.

But according to research presented at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Regina, there is another kind of Canadian apology that is becoming both a “spectacle” and a “trend,” and there is nothing funny about it at all.

This is the national apology, delivered in sombre tones by the Prime Minister, as the rest of the House of Commons nods along in communal contrition for some historical outrage.

Each one by itself – whether it is the apology for residential schools, the Chinese head tax, or the refusal to let the Komagata Maru dock in Vancouver — can be seen as a unique moment of reconciliation, decades in the making. But when they are taken together, and compared using theories of rhetorical discourse analysis, some worrying patterns emerge.

Most obviously, they often repeat the same language and phraseology, especially the overworked literary cliché about a “dark chapter” in Canada’s history, according to Angie Wong, a PhD candidate at York University in Toronto.

The effect is not only that these apologies come across as ambiguous and suspicious, but that they are creating what Wong calls “a new cultural dynamic of apologism in Canadian politics.”

“I see this as a long trend of political scramble or crisis management,” said Wong in an interview. These national apologies are one of many political tactics that reinforce Canada’s 20th century turn toward being more “convivial,” “hospitable,” and “benevolent” towards marginalized groups, as compared to its colonial past.

In the case of the Chinese head tax — a racist and exclusionary law that penalized newcomers from China, for which Stephen Harper apologized in 2006 – Wong relates it to the new sense of alliance between China and the West as result of China’s victory over Japan in the Second World War.

It was not the first time old grievances from that war were dredged up for modern political atonement. Brian Mulroney, for example, apologized in 1988 for the wartime internment of Japanese Canadians. But something had changed with the Chinese head tax apology. It “appeared to ignite a larger trend of state apologies extended to other once-marginalized Canadians,” Wong said. Before long, the government was apologizing for relocating Inuit, discriminating against gays in the civil service, and entertaining requests for more apologies, such as the forthcoming one to the Jewish community for refusing to accept the refugees on the St. Louis ocean liner in 1939.

“In other words, the issuing of apology for historical injustice symbolically became vital to the political performances that welcomed certain marginalized peoples into the body politic, while simultaneously relegating the actions and policies of the state to a distant past,” she writes in a paper to be presented at the Congress.

“Since the early 2000s, Canada has fallen into a trend of performing national apologies to historically oppressed groups and peoples, including Indigenous and First Nations peoples, the Chinese and South Asians,” she writes. “In the liberal push for political correctness and in the challenges that social justice cultural workers continue pose to the Canadian government regarding redress, reparations, and belonging, national apologies are increasingly ambiguous and suspicious in their purpose.”

The effect of this self-serving performance of penance is to “inauthentically absolve the state for historical injustice.”

The source of that inauthenticity is not that the apologizers do not mean it. Rather, it comes from the pose the government takes by apologizing for things the current office holders did not do, with the presumption that these injustices are no longer happening. The message seems to be that the time has come to at least forgive the long dead offenders, if not forget their crimes and the lingering effects. Harper, for example, called the Chinese head tax “a product of a profoundly different time.”

“It’s a little bit problematic because if we’re thinking about asking for authentic or genuine gestures of forgiveness, then we need to think about how to relate these apologies so that they speak to the people who are essentially giving forgiveness,” Wong said. “But in the reproduction of this phraseology of “this has been a dark chapter in Canadian history,” it kind of reads to me that they’re a regurgitation, or at least a reproduction process that puts all of these historical injustices in the same realm of recognition or acknowledgment, which is that they are things that happened in the past, there is no contemporary or current present continuation of these injustices.”

Source: Canada’s new ‘dark chapter’: So many national apologies for past injustice, they’ve become insincere

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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