Politics is a sorry place

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Government apologies for wrongs from the distant past do little to improve things for those who were wronged and their descendants.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on May 31, 2021.

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made his first foray into politics, he made it clear that he was his own person, not simply a political scion.

Last week, Trudeau followed through on that claim when he arose in the House of Commons to apologize to Italian Canadians for their internment at government hands during the Second World War. His father would never have issued such an apology because Pierre Trudeau did not believe that current governments should own the sins of their forebears.

Former Liberal minister and proud Italian Canadian Sergio Marchi recently penned an opinion piece published in The Ottawa Citizen on why he supported the viewpoint of the father, not that of the son.

Marchi himself had called for an apology while he was serving in Parliament, but he wrote that his viewpoint had changed.

“I have since moved towards former prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s position. He argued that the obligation of a government is not to right the past. In the House of Commons, he stated, ‘It is our purpose to be just in our times.’ He refused to play Monday morning quarterback. He instead encouraged us to learn from history, rather than apologize for it,” wrote Marchi.

Last week, political leaders of all stripes rose to support the prime minister’s call for an apology. They needed to. There are currently 1.6 million Italian Canadians who hold considerable sway in many urban ridings, especially in the GTA. It is impossible for politicians looking for votes to oppose an apology for the wrongful interment of Italians, Japanese, and Ukrainians during more than one war.

But the question Marchi posed in his column was the right one. “First, if governments were to apologize for the actions of their predecessors, where would they stop? Parliaments could forever be revisiting past actions with an endless number of apologies. After all, to be human is to err.”

Marchi also underscored the reality that different times produce different results, based on the political realities of the day. It is difficult in principle to oppose apologies. Who doesn’t want to repair the injustices of the past? But it is a slippery slope with no end in sight. There will always be aggrieved groups treated badly by governments.

My own ancestors worked the land in the first Acadian settlement in Canada, only to be unceremoniously dispossessed when the English kicked them out of Grand-Pré in Nova Scotia during the Great Deportation. In today’s world, all 50 founding families of Grand-Pré would all have been seeking apologies and compensation. Instead, the government of Canada has invested heavily in Grand-Pré and has even signed a partnership agreement deeding lands in question back to the Acadians. With the support of Parks Canada, the site became the country’s 16th UNESCO World Heritage site back in 2012. Because of the designation, and the deep roots of the Acadian people in Atlantic Canada, the site has become a magnet for tourists looking to understand their own heritage or the beginnings of the Canadian experience. There is an Acadian tourist trail that wends its way through the region and tells the touching story of a diaspora kicked off their own land.

A decade ago, Italian Canadians received similar collective recognition with a financial investment of $5-million dollars to tell the story of historic injustices suffered by internees at the hands of the government.

An apology cannot repair bad decisions of governments past. And it has little impact on the future. That is why Pierre Trudeau worked hard to support justice in his own time. His was a body of political work that did not involve having to say you’re sorry for past mistakes.

The Charter of Rights and Freedoms, integrated into the Canadian constitution during Trudeau’s tenure back in 1982, did more to support Acadians than any other single piece of legislation or flowery statement in the House of Commons. That charter meant that every French-Canadian outside Quebec would receive the right to be fully educated in their own language in the public-school systems of multiple provinces. Jean Chretien was justice minister when the new constitution was penned, and he shared Pierre Trudeau’s viewpoint that doing something for change today means much more than apologizing for what happened a century ago.

As we edge closer to an election, all the parties are reaching out to multiple communities. But to those of us not trolling for votes, the rollout of apologies, especially on the eve of an election, looks decidedly spurious.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.