Sorry, but I’ve had enough of saying sorry

Posted on August 15, 2018 in Governance Debates – Opinion
August 14, 2018.   CHRISTIE BLATCHFORD

I don’t know about anyone else, but I have a bad case of revisionist-history/apology fatigue. I am pretty much done.

The Langevin Block in Ottawa is gone, now cursed with the gormless title of The Office of the Prime Minister and the Privy Council. The Langevin Bridge in Calgary is gone, now the Reconciliation Bridge. Both were changed because the Langevin in question, Sir Hector-Louis Langevin, a Father of Confederation, was also a supporter of the residential school system.

At the time of the decision to rename the bridge, one of the Calgary city councillors in favour of it promised that the plaque that would be placed on the bridge some day (it still doesn’t appear to be there) “won’t be vilifying” Langevin.

Well, when the City of Victoria packed up the statue of Sir John A. Macdonaldlast weekend and replaced it with a plaque, said plaque explained that the removal was done to “show progress on the path of reconciliation” while “the City, the Nations and the wider community grapple with Macdonald’s complex history as both the first Prime Minister of Canada and a leader of violence against Indigenous Peoples.”

That’s close enough to vilification for me.

Macdonald was responsible for Aboriginal policy, certainly, including the development of the residential school system, but does that make him a “leader of violence”?

The plaque lasted only a matter of hours, anyway, before it was defaced.

Victoria has bravely decided (and told Global News) it will keep on replacing the plaque no matter how many times it’s vandalized. O! the heroism!

Macdonald also wanted to extend the federal vote to Aboriginal men, so long as they met the same qualifications as other British subjects. The compromise that passed was repealed a few years later.

The modern euphemism for men like Macdonald and Langevin is that they had “complicated” legacies or personal stories.

What that means is that they were men of their time and place, subject to the common failings (that is, racism or misogyny) of their era, plus burdened with personal weaknesses. Of course they were. Who isn’t?

Except for the appalling current fashion of describing the newly murdered as “always smiling” paragons of virtue, which is but a fad, no sensible adult is likely to buy a one-dimensional portrait of his fellow man.

Yet the University of Victoria has temporarily removed the name of Joseph Trutch (B.C.’s first lieutenant-governor but also someone who had antipathy to Indigenous people) from one of its dorms; it’s now glamorously called Lansdowne Residence #1.

The Law Society of British Columbia last year removed from its foyer a statue of the province’s first chief justice, Matthew Begbie. He was nicknamed the “hanging judge,” his great failing that he presided over four trials in which six of nine Tsilhqot’in chiefs were convicted by juries for murdering white road-builders.

As was the custom of the day, the men were hanged.

Indigenous people considered the men freedom fighters.

Begbie had one staunch defender, the magazine published by the Vancouver Bar Association, The Advocate, which in a September 2017 editorial cited Begbie’s accomplishments as evidence that in many ways he was ahead of his time.

“He learned a number of Indigenous dialects and even conducted trials in those languages,” the editorial said. “He had great friendships with a number of chiefs.” He recognized the concept of Aboriginal marriage and allowed an oath that recognized Aboriginal beliefs.

As the editorial put it, “By removing the Begbie statue from the Law Society lobby, our governing body is now telling us that Begbie’s legacy has but a single dimension, which is antithetical to truth and reconciliation.”

By then, of course, one B.C. provincial government already had apologized for the hangings and another had exonerated the six chiefs.

Canadian governments, federal and provincial, have been apologizing for historical wrongs for decades, starting perhaps with prime minister Brian Mulroney who, in 1988, apologized to Japanese-Canadians interred during the Second World War, and continuing with Justin Trudeau, who this year has already issued two such statements — one a “statement of exoneration” to the Tsilhqot’in Nation for the six aforementioned hanged chiefs, one a formal apology for MS St. Louis and its passengers, Jewish refugees fleeing Germany who weren’t allowed to dock in Canada in 1939. The ship returned to Europe, where many passengers later died in concentration camps.

In between came apologies to LGBTQ2 members of the military and public service who lost their jobs because of their sexual orientation; residential school survivors in Newfoundland and Labrador (for events that pre-dated Newfoundland’s entry into Confederation and thus weren’t covered by the original apology delivered by then-PM Stephen Harper); Omar Khadr; the relocation of the Sayisi Dene; the passengers of the Komagata Maru, another ship whose passengers (Indians of Sikh, Hindu or Muslim faith) were sent away from Canada; the relocation of Inuit to the High Arctic; Maher Arar for any role Canada played in his imprisonment in Syria; the Chinese head tax and for the execution of 23 Canadian soldiers charged with desertion (their names were added to the Book of Remembrance).

Anticipated federal apologies believed to be in the pipe are to Cree leader Chief Poundmaker for convicting him of treason in 1885 and for the Sixties Scoop, though Alberta and Saskatchewan have already apologized.

Undoubtedly, there are yet more coming we don’t know about, streets and public buildings to be renamed, books to be rewritten, historical figures to be demonized.

How is it that the country that once produced such towering figures — settlers and Indigenous — is now locked into this sorry dance of apologies sought, apologies given?

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