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

Valid argument:

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

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

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

Trudeau to offer formal apology in the Commons for fate of MS St. Louis

Will be interesting to see if any of the groups that suffered from wartime internment or other restrictions (e.g., Ukrainian, German and Italian Canadians) will ask for an apology (Japanese Canadians, given the nature of their internment and displacement, received their apology under the Mulroney government).

This apology completes the most obvious cases of immigration restrictions which merit an apology (Chinese Canadians for the head tax, Indo-Canadians for the Komagatu Maru):

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will deliver another official apology in the House of Commons, this time over the fate of the MS St. Louis.

“When Canada denied asylum to the 907 German Jews on board the MS St. Louis, we failed not only those passengers, but also their descendants and community,” Trudeau said in a statement, which doesn’t say when he plans to deliver the apology.

The prime minister said that while an apology can’t change Canada’s history or bring back those who lost their lives, acknowledging the result of the decision to turn away the MS St. Louis — the deaths of 254 people in the Holocaust — is key to learning from the past.

“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,'” Trudeau said. “I look forward to offering this apology on the floor of the House.”

In 1939, the St. Louis left Germany carrying 907 Jewish passengers fleeing persecution from the Nazi regime. The ship was turned away from Cuba and the United States before trying to dock in Halifax.

When the government of William Lyon Mackenzie King refused to let them disembark, the ship returned to Europe.

About half the passengers were taken in by the U.K., the Netherlands, France and Belgium. About 500 of them returned to Germany, where 254 were killed in concentration and internment camps.

Source: Trudeau to offer formal apology in the Commons for fate of MS St. Louis

Sorry has been the hardest word for governments

Good overview by Evan Dyer.

When working on the Canadian Historical Recognition Program and some of the apologies then under consideration, all these issues came up. The article’s comment that lawyers “hate apologies” (given legal risks) brings back memories of many meetings.

And as noted, Conservative governments have been more open to apologies and recognition programs (Japanese wartime internment, Chinese head tax etc, residential school system):

Canada’s next official apology is already in the works.

The country, through its prime minister, is expected to express contrition for the historic cruelty of turning away the St. Louis, a ship carrying Jewish refugees fleeing Nazism in 1939.

The passengers had already been refused entry by Cuban and U.S. authorities. Rejected and dejected, they would return to a Europe on the brink of war. Many would die in Nazi concentration camps.

A statement of regret, 80 years after the fact, will fit firmly into the Canadian government’s record of official apology.

Until Tuesday’s LGBTQ2 apology — and leaving aside apologies to individuals such as Maher Arar — Canada had atoned for three types of wrongs: those related to the Indian Residential School system, wrongs related to immigration, such as the Chinese head tax or the Komagata Maru incident, and wrongs it perpetrated during the two world wars, such as the internment of Japanese-Canadians and the executions of Canadian soldiers during the First World War.

The St. Louis incident checks two of those three boxes.

Some in the Jewish community have fought for years to make the government acknowledge that its decision was heartless and tainted by anti-Semitism.

Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis attempt to communicate with friends and relatives in Cuba, June 3, 1939. The ship’s passengers were later refused entry to Canada and many died in the Holocaust. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum/National Archives and Records)

Others are less keen. Sally Zerker, whose Polish-Jewish family members on the St. Louis were turned away, wrote in Canadian Jewish News that an apology now would be “nothing but a shallow, empty, meaningless act.”

“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.”

But Zerker’s reaction is not typical. Though panned by some critics as “virtue-signalling” and gesture politics, apologies often mean a lot to the people to whom they’re directed.

Apologies, left and right

It was Conservative Brian Mulroney who broke the ice in 1988, when he apologized for the internment of Japanese-Canadians (Ronald Reagan the same year signed a similar apology to Japanese-Americans who were interned). Stephen Harper followed suit in 2006 with an apology for the head tax that unfairly penalized Chinese immigrants from 1885 to 1923.

Harper also made what is probably Canada’s biggest apology to date for the residential school system. Justin Trudeau’s apology last week extended that apology to residential school survivors in Newfoundland and Labrador who had been excluded.

Then prime minister Stephen Harper shakes hands with Indigenous leaders on June 11, 2008, the day he formally apologized on behalf of the Canadian government for the residential school system. The exclusion of schools in Newfoundland and Labrador led to another apology by Justin Trudeau last week. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Trudeau’s own father was no fan of saying sorry. When Mulroney first proposed an apology for Japanese-Canadians in 1984, Trudeau rebuffed him.

 “I do not think it is the purpose of a government to right the past,” Pierre Trudeau said. “It is our purpose to be just in our time.”

“My father might have a different perspective on it than I do,” Justin Trudeau said Monday, as he prepared to apologize for the persecution of LGBT Canadians.

“He came at it as an academic, as a constitutionalist. I come at it as a teacher, as someone who’s worked a lot in communities.”

Lawyers hate apologies

Trudeau could also have said his father came at it as a lawyer, which he was.

Lawyers routinely tell their clients that apologies can be construed as admissions of guilt or liability — and can carry a price tag.

Concerns about reparations long delayed an official U.S. government apology for slavery.

Former U.S. president Bill Clinton condemned his country’s record on a visit to Senegal in 1998, but added the caveat: “We cannot push time backward through the door of no return. We have lived our history.”

Ten years would pass before the U.S. Congress would pass a resolution apologizing for more than 200 years of slavery and segregation of African-Americans.

But the Senate’s beautifully worded apology to African-Americans ends with this rather jarring clause: “Disclaimer: Nothing in this resolution  a) authorizes or supports any claim against the United States; or b) serves as a settlement of any claim against the United States.”

Limited liability

Slavery began in United States during colonial times, but it persisted long after the U.S. Declaration of Independence, as the Congressional apology acknowledged.

Should Canada’s responsibility for historic wrongs extend to pre-Confederation times?

Stephen Harper thought not, which is why he excluded Newfoundland and Labrador from his residential school apology in 2008. Trudeau has decided that the province’s pre-Confederation history (N.L. joined in 1949) was Canada’s history. And it’s a history with its own set of wrongs.

Relations between Newfoundland’s original inhabitants, the Beothuks, and its settlers were so bad that encounters between the two usually left one side dead. The last confirmed member of the Beothuk people died in 1829.

And the same British Crown that pacified Quebec by extending legal tolerance and equality to its Catholic majority showed a much harsher face in its Newfoundland colony. There, it imposed the same code of discrimination and persecution it operated in Ireland: the Penal Laws.

The policies enacted in a forlorn bid to prevent Irish people from settling Newfoundland included banning the Roman Catholic religion, hunting priests and nuns, burning homes and outbuildings and refusing the right of burial.

Official government correspondence of the era typically refers to the island’s Irish people as “idle, disorderly, useless men and women” and “disaffected, disloyal, disorderly, enured to drunkenness, debauchery, vices and felonies of all kinds.”

Irish people lived under absurd restrictions — for example, no two “Papist” men could spend the winter under the same roof unless they were servants of a Protestant master — and any infraction was an excuse for exile.

Sins of the Crown

Acadian family members place flowers at the base of a monument honouring the memory of Acadians who were deported 250 years ago, on the waterfront in Halifax in 2005. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

At least one of Canada’s pre-Confederation wrongs has already been addressed in a formal apology — from the Queen.

The expulsion of the Acadians in 1755 from what is now the Maritimes and Quebec was a historic transgression whose consequences are still felt by the exiles’ descendants (some of whom live in Louisiana rather than Nova Scotia, for one thing).

Queen Elizabeth apologized to the Acadians in 2003, signing a royal “Proclamation Designating 28 July of Every Year as A Day of Commemoration of the Great Upheaval.”

But she was careful to add a rider:

“Our present proclamation does not, under any circumstances, constitute a recognition of legal or financial responsibility by the Crown.”

Chinese-Canadian veterans fought in secret WWII unit and helped changed laws

Interesting part of our history and how their military contribution forced Canada to reconsider its restrictive laws (e.g., voting):

It wasn’t until two years after the war, in 1947, that Canada allowed Chinese-Canadians to vote and repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which had banned almost all immigration from China since 1923. Chinese immigrants had also been singled out to pay a head tax.

“I think it was after we got our citizenship and our right to vote that they realized we did our duty,” Lee says of the general population in Vancouver, where the return of Caucasian soldiers was widely celebrated while minorities who’d also risked their lives in war were mostly ignored.

Henry Yu, a professor in the history department at the University of British Columbia, says the federal government did not want Chinese-Canadians fighting in the war because of fears they’d demand the vote.

“They’d seen it already because several hundred Chinese and Japanese had fought for Canada in World War I and when those veterans returned they asked for the vote. So they knew from experience in World War I that this was going to be a problem,” Yu says. “They wanted to maintain white supremacy.”

Chinese-Canadians were recruited into Force 136 with the belief they’d blend in behind enemy lines, he says.

Catherine Clement, curator of the Chinese Canadian Military Museum in Vancouver’s Chinatown, says the little-known story of Force 136 has been mostly forgotten and there are few records of the clandestine group of spies that was part of Britain’s Special Executive Operations.

“They created this double victory,” she says of Lee and the Chinese-Canadian veterans. “They helped the Allies win the war and they also helped to win the rights for all Chinese living in Canada.”

via Chinese-Canadian veterans fought in secret WWII unit and helped changed laws | National Post

Japanese internment letters convey betrayal at loss of homes, heirlooms

Good research and reminder of this historic injustice:

Judy Hanazawa says the federal government sold her family’s fishing boats and homes while her parents were in internment camps during the Second World War, but what hits hardest is seeing a 70-year-old letter from her father disputing a government cheque for $14.68.

Hanazawa had never seen the letter until recently, but the Vancouver resident said reading it conveys the sense of betrayal her father must have felt losing family possessions and having to start over with almost nothing after he was held in a camp in British Columbia’s Interior.

“My dad, in writing this letter, was really intent on being dignified in how he approached the government,” Hanazawa said. “He pointed out to them the value of these belongings was much more than he received. For him it was a lot to write this, to point out that this was not really right.”

The Feb. 10, 1947, letter to the federal Office of the Custodian in Vancouver includes a list of Hanazawa family items — a Singer sewing machine, record player, dresser and other household items — with an estimated value of $224.95. The letter also lists a Japanese doll, worth $10, and includes a reward for its return.

Geniche Hanazawa’s letter is one of 300 letters discovered in a federal archive written by Japanese Canadians protesting the sale of their homes, businesses and heirlooms while held in internment camps during the Second World War.

Historian Jordan Stanger-Ross of the University of Victoria came across the letters while researching federal archives as part of a project examining the dispossession of Japanese Canadians. The Landscapes of Injustice is one of Canada’s largest humanities research projects.

He said many Japanese Canadians were prepared to accept being sent to internment camps during the war, but losing everything was not expected. The federal government promised to keep the homes and businesses for internees, but the policy changed during the war and the properties were sold.

The letters reflect the sense of loss and betrayal Japanese Canadians felt towards the government for selling off their possessions and life’s work without consent, he said.

“They wrote these really remarkable letters, some of them are long and lay out life stories of migration to Canada, building a home, building a business, raising children,” said Stanger-Ross. “Some of them are very short and just say, ‘I received your cheque, which I tore up.’ ”

Authors of the letters include the Victoria owners of a successful dry cleaning business, an internee whose cousins died in France serving Canada during the First World War, and a man who put two of his Canadian-born children through medical school.

“We have many letters from people just shocked at the price for which both their land and personal belongings and businesses had been sold,” Stanger-Ross said.

About 22,000 Japanese Canadians were sent to internment camps in Canada from 1942 until 1949.

“Readers of these letters tend to pause and contemplate what it would mean for me to lose my home, my business, lose the opportunity to educate my children in my community and really lose the dream of multiple generations that have built lives here in B.C.,” Stanger-Ross said.

The letters are also set to become part of an online historical exhibition called Writing Wrongs at the Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre in Burnaby, B.C. The exhibit is scheduled to open in 2019.

Museum curator Sherri Kajiwara said Japanese Canadians were prepared to do their time in internment, but losing everything was not part of the deal.

“The thing I find with the letters is the unbelievable politeness and eloquence,” she said. “The language is so painfully polite; basically saying, ‘kindly, please, stop it. You are not allowed to sell my belongings.’ “

via Japanese internment letters convey betrayal at loss of homes, heirlooms | Vancouver Sun

Quen Chow Lee, lead plaintiff in lawsuit over Chinese head tax, dies at 105

Good story about her life and activism, not to mention the role activism plays in shifting positions:

Quen Chow Lee, one of three immigrant litigants who led a class-action lawsuit against Ottawa over its discriminatory Chinese head tax, has died. She was 105.

Born in China in October 18, 1911, Lee was nicknamed “Nooey Quen” — meaning women’s rights in English.

Her toughness helped her overcome war, poverty, a 14-year separation from her husband, and the drawn-out legal battle for government redress, said her son Yew Lee.

“She was a tough lady, determined, committed and stubborn, someone who had a strong sense of justice,” said Lee. “Yet, she was a very loving mother and grandmother.”

A native of Taishan, Chow Lee married to Guang Foo Lee in 1930, when he returned to China from Canada to find a wife. He was born in 1892, also in Taishan, and paid a $500 head tax in 1913 to come to Canada.

After the marriage, Lee only stayed two years in China because Canadian laws then made Chinese people pay another $500 head tax if they were out of the country for too long. He left behind his wife, pregnant with a third child, and two kids.

Between 1885 and 1923, the Canadian government collected a total of $23 million from some 81,000 people under the various forms of the Chinese Immigration Act.

Because of the Second World War and the civil war in China, Chow Lee and her children lost touch with her husband for almost 14 years.

Chow Lee raised the children on her own until after the repeal in 1947 of the Chinese Immigration Act, which had effectively banned Chinese immigration to Canada for more than two decades. Although Chinese wives could now join their husbands in Canada, most had to wait patiently before the family saved enough money for the fares.

“I’ve endured so many years of hardship. We had no money and nothing to eat,” Chow Lee said in the 2004 documentary, In the Shadow of Gold Mountain, by Karen Cho. “Some women remarried farmers from faraway just to survive . . . but I didn’t want to because of my children.”

Chow Lee arrived in Canada with her three children after Christmas in 1950 and settled in Sudbury, Ont. where the family ran a number of restaurants: the Capitol Café, the Star Restaurant, the China House Restaurant, the Empress Tavern and Lee’s Palace.

After her husband passed away in 1967, Chow Lee once again was left to raise her children on her own — now five of them, with the two youngest ones born in Canada.

Growing up, Yew Lee said his mother would pull out a piece of paper from a leather-and-brass box and just looked at it. It was his father’s head tax certificate.

“She kept it in a steamer trunk above the restaurant. She would pull it out many many times. We knew something was wrong and the paper was significant,” Yew Lee recalled. “She always felt the injustice had to be righted.”

Chow Lee was already retired in her late 80s when the family got in touch with the Chinese Canadian National Council, which had spearheaded the redress campaign. She immediately volunteered to be one of the lead claimants of the class-action lawsuit representing the head-tax-payers’ widows.

Chow Lee would travel in her wheelchair to fundraising events and rallies between Toronto and Ottawa to raise public awareness about Canada’s racist past against the Chinese.

“We approached many head-tax-payers and families to sue the government, but many turned down because they were ashamed of it and didn’t want to talk about it. But Mrs. Lee needed no convincing,” said Avvy Go, one of the lawyers involved in the lawsuit. “She was a true inspiration for all of us.”

Although the lawsuit was ultimately dismissed and subsequent appeals were denied, it set into motion talks with the government that ended in an official apology at the House of Commons on June 22, 2006.

Chow Lee was in the audience when then prime minister Stephen Harper apologized in Cantonese to the Chinese-Canadian community.

“Even though we didn’t win the lawsuit, Mrs. Lee never gave up hope. She never had any regret,” said Go. “She used her suffering to propel her to fight injustice and challenge the government head on for its treatment of the Chinese. She was a model not only for the Chinese, but all Canadians.”

Source: Quen Chow Lee, lead plaintiff in lawsuit over Chinese head tax, dies at 105 | Toronto Star

Chu Lai fought against anti-Chinese discrimination and won

One of the early Chinese Canadian pioneers in the struggle against discrimination and racism:

After he died while asleep at home at age 59, the Chinese community in Victoria turned out in huge numbers to say goodbye to one of the country’s pioneers. Chu Lai is not much remembered today, but in his day in the late 19th and early 20th century, he was known for fighting against racism toward Chinese immigrants at a time when it wasn’t popular. He was one of the wealthiest Chinese merchants in B.C., with a net worth estimated at $500,000.

On Wednesday, June 6, 1906, the Victoria Times Colonist reported about preparations for his public funeral.

The story said ceremonies included building a temporary altar for a Taoist priest to perform last rites in front of where Lai died. Everything was arranged by the Chinese Empire Reform Association, a political party started by the Chinese reformer and exile Kang Youwei in Victoria in 1899 to establish a constitutional monarchy in China. Chu was vice-president of the Victoria chapter when he died.

“Professional mourners who will be clad in sackcloth have been engaged to weep as they walk in a funeral procession,” the story said. “Every carriage in the city has been engaged, as also the services of a local brass band.”

Chu came Canada in the 1860s. A member of the Hakka minority in Guangdong in southern China, he made his fortune trading during the Cariboo Gold Rush. By 1876, he was successful enough to open the Wing Chong Company in Victoria.

In 1885, Chu was a participant in a historic court case. A year before, the provincial legislature had passed the Chinese Regulation Act which put an annual tax of $10 on all Chinese residents over the age of 14.

Chu and another Chinese immigrant were charged and convicted of failing to pay the tax. Chu posted a bond of $250 and challenged the law in B.C. Supreme Court, according to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.

In the precedent-setting case, the court ruled that the act was “ultra vires” — beyond the power of the provincial legislature.

Source: Chu Lai fought against anti-Chinese discrimination and won | Vancouver Sun

Lillian Eva Dyck, Victor Oh and Yuen Pau Woo: Canada’s sordid history of treating Chinese-Canadians as ‘undesirables’

Good and important recounting of this aspect of our history by these three senators:

As we celebrate the 150th anniversary of Canada’s Confederation, another anniversary must not go overlooked. May 14, 2017 marks 70 years since the repeal of the Chinese Immigration Act, the only law in Canadian history to bar a specific ethnic group from coming to Canada.

Today, roughly 1.5 million people of Chinese descent live in Canada. Although most arrived over the past two decades, the first significant wave began in the 19th century. Chinese migrants came to Canada during the 1850s for the gold rush in British Columbia’s lower Fraser Valley. Chinese prospectors earned little money because they were prohibited from working in mines until others had moved on from them.

Another wave of Chinese migrants came between 1881 and 1885 to build the Canadian Pacific Railway. They were exposed to harsh weather conditions and were tasked with the most dangerous and backbreaking jobs of building bridges over valleys and digging tunnels through mountains. These conditions led to 600 deaths, among the more than 15,000 Chinese labourers.

After the railroad was completed in 1885, many Chinese labourers remained in the country. Some headed for the prairies and eastern Canada, but most stayed in B.C.

Once Chinese labour was no longer needed, the government passed laws to limit and then prohibit Chinese immigration. In 1885, Sir John A. Macdonald’s government enacted the Chinese Immigration Act, which imposed a $50 head tax (more than $1,000 in today’s dollars) on all Chinese immigrants.

The head tax created poverty and fractured families. The majority of Chinese immigrants were men who came to the country to find work. The costly head tax forced them to leave their wives and children behind. Families that paid the fee would spend years paying off the outstanding debt.

On July 1, 1923, the federal government implemented the Chinese Immigration Act, banning Chinese immigration altogether. Other policies further restricted their ability to vote, hold public office, or practice law or medicine. Municipalities enacted additional policies. For instance, Vancouver barred Chinese from swimming in public pools.

Since the Chinese Immigration Act took effect the same day as the anniversary of Confederation, this day became known as “Humiliation Day” among Chinese-Canadians. In protest, some Chinese-Canadians closed their businesses and boycotted Dominion Day (the precursor to Canada Day) celebrations every July 1 until it was repealed. This community felt compelled to reject the nation’s birthday.

It was not until 1947 that the federal government repealed the Chinese Immigration Act, in large part due to the lobbying efforts of activists from across Canada, including lawyer Kew Doc Yip. There was also broader public support for the repeal, as a result of Chinese-Canadians’ significant contribution to the Second World War effort. However, restrictions on Chinese immigration and other discriminatory laws remained in place.

In the House of Commons that year, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King said Canada had the right to determine who it considers “desirable future citizens.” “Large-scale migration from the Orient would change the fundamental composition of the Canadian population,” he said.

It took another 20 years for this attitude to change. In 1967, Canada introduced a points-based policy that gave Chinese equal opportunity to immigrate to Canada. It allowed immigrants to apply based on education and skills. By the 1980s, Chinese immigration was on the rise, enhancing the status of Chinese communities across the country.

Finally, on June 22, 2006, the Canadian government, under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, issued a formal apology for the Chinese Immigration Act. It was an important step towards reconciliation. It reaffirmed to Chinese-Canadians that they are full and equal members of Canadian society and that their contributions were valuable to Canada’s development.

Source: Lillian Eva Dyck, Victor Oh and Yuen Pau Woo: Canada’s sordid history of treating Chinese-Canadians as ‘undesirables’ | National Post