Government apologies need follow-through to have impact

Being sorry without action is not truly being sorry

Shandis Harrison / The Runner

Canadians are stereotypically known for apologizing for pretty much everything. Our extensive list notably includes apologizing for historic injustices and, in recent decades, Canadian politicians have with greater frequency formally apologizing for the racist and discriminatory actions of our predecessors. The multicultural nature of Canada means it is especially important to be aware of the various impacts these historical actions have had on marginalized groups, especially when it comes to the cause and effect of discriminatory events.

On May 18, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will offer a full apology in the House of Commons for the Komagata Maru incident which occurred May 23, 1914. The Komagata Maru was a Japanese steamship that arrived in Vancouver. Aboard the ship were 376 passengers on passage from India, most of whom were Sikh. The majority of the passengers were denied access to Canada, and were sent back to India, where 19 of them were shot by British India police.

In Trudeau’s speech addressing the Komagata Maru, he stated that, “As a nation, we should never forget the prejudice suffered by the Sikh community at the hands of the Canadian government of the day.” Even though this tragic event happened 102 years ago, this apology could give some closure to the Sikh community, since the Prime Minister is acknowledging the incident for what it was.

The apology cannot change the tragedy of what happened, but it’s the gesture of a genuine apology that can have a long-term effect for the better. By taking responsibility for an injustice that happened long ago, it shows the government’s acknowledgement that our history is not pristine, and it generates awareness that we still have a long way to go.

Since 1990, there have been 15 nations, including Canada, that have included “reconciliation,” in their ways of acknowledging injustice throughout the countries’ histories. In the 1990s, there were five formal apologies to First Nations from various Canadian institutions. In the next decade, the apologies were addressed to Indo-Canadians, Chinese Canadians, Japanese Canadians, and First Nations. However, on more occasion these formal apologies have been criticized for being no more than political ploys to drum up support for the government.

When questioning whether or not political apologies are effective, we must first consider who is the target of the apology. CBC reported in 2013 that the leaders of many B.C First Nations and cultural groups stated that they, “want[ed] political parties to stop using official apologies for historical wrongs as partisan campaign strategies.” It had been uncovered that, in 2013, the B.C. Liberal’s had an ethnic outreach document planned to get “quick wins,” by apologizing for past injustices. This leaked document is what encouraged many marginalized groups take a stand against the government, since the B.C. Liberals clearly wanted to take advantage of them.

When apologizing to marginalized groups, especially Aboriginal peoples, the government hasn’t had much of an effect on their lives. This is because, when the government has apologized, they’ve done so without doing anything to improve the marginalized groups’ situation. This is a cheap attempt at justice. They haven’t been known to form new plans that would help these communities in the long run. More than mere apologies, there has to be some commitment to action, to reforming government policies and devising changes in societal structures that hold back our nation’s ideals.


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