Enough with the apologies

Posted on June 12, 2008 in Equality Debates

NationalPost.com – opinion/editorial: Enough with the apologies
Published: Thursday, June 12, 2008

Yesterday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper formally apologized for our nation’s long-standing policy of sending native children to residential schools, something he accurately described as “a sad chapter in our history.”

If ever there were a historical injustice for which our government had reason to express contrition, this is surely it. Beyond traumatizing families by forcibly separating children from their parents, our country’s policy led to the abuse of thousands of boys and girls at the hands of inadequately trained — and, in some cases, sadistic — teachers and supervisors. No doubt, the emotional scars caused by these episodes have stayed with the victims throughout their lives. And we hope that yesterday’s apology served to palliate the suffering of abuse survivors in some small way.

All this said, there are aspects of the apology — and the larger trend of which it is a part — that make us uneasy.

In recent years, Western governments, including our own, have issued apologies for a whole range of historical injustices — covering everything from the genocidal (the Holocaust) to the merely discriminatory (Canada’s head tax on Asian immigrants). Many voters are now jaded to these grand expressions.

Moreover, as eloquent as Mr. Harper’s words were, listeners no doubt wondered: How much moral weight did they carry? The evil that transpired in residential schools was the responsibility of a different generation of political and religious leaders. Why, exactly, is this government apologizing now? Many Canadians — including many natives –no doubt saw yesterday’s speech as a somewhat cynical gesture aimed at capturing the goodwill our society associates with pious contrition.

This would perhaps be an acceptable price to pay were the apology to assist in the repair of white-native relations in this country. But despite Mr. Harper’s somewhat plaintive tone — “the government of Canada sincerely apologizes and asks the forgiveness of the aboriginal peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly” — that seems doubtful. Consider that the federal government already expressed regret for the residential schools legacy back in 1998. At the time, the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), a lobby group that represents native chiefs and band councils, pronounced itself happy with the apology — until it became clear that more could be wrested out of the government.

It is telling that, despite a $1.9-billion compensation plan for residential school victims, the AFN continued to express dissatisfaction in the run-up to yesterday’s announcement. In fact, the group pre-emptively protested the apology because its members weren’t allowed to help write it. The issue of residential schools is a lever of guilt that the AFN has pulled hard and often in the past. And we don’t expect this latest apology to change that.

Another concern we have is that — like all official apologies of this type — the government’s announcement on residential schools will reinforce stereotypes that cast aboriginals as passive victims of a racist white society. It is no doubt true, of course, that many natives were set back by their experience with residential schools — sometime in tragic and indelible ways. But our society already places great emphasis on the sins that whites perpetrated against natives in past ages. Mr. Harper’s statement that “In separating children from their families, we undermined the ability of many to adequately parent their own children and sowed the seeds for generations to follow,” provides unnecessary encouragement for the fatalistic notion that the problems of the present are destined to persist due to the sins of the past.

A final concern is that the process of apologizing inevitably leads to a warping of our nation’s history.

To ensure his contrition did not appear qualified, Mr. Harper portrayed Canada’s experience with residential schools as a virtually continuous parade of horribles — conceding only, in a single isolated line, that “some former students have spoken positively about their experiences at residential schools.” Yet as Rodney Clifton and Raymond de Souza recently reminded us on the pages of the National Post, residential schools actually produced much that was good, alongside the much that was evil. Many of the students who attended received proper educations, learned how to speak English or French, were cured of contagious diseases and — in some cases — were actually saved from abusive situations within their communities.

None of this was reflected in Mr. Harper’s speech. Rather than educate Canadians on the complex history of residential schools, the speech fed them a politically sanitized monolith.

Mr. Harper is unequivocally correct that “it was wrong to separate children from rich and vibrant cultures and traditions.” And Canadians should be made aware of the suffering experienced by natives at residential schools, as well as our government’s role in perpetrating that evil. But that knowledge is best acquired from educators, book authors, historians and journalists. When elected officials presume to render judgments on history, politics inevitably gets in the way.

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