Giving voice to history

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by Laura Madokoro

Last week, the first event by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on residential schools was held in Winnipeg. In the same week, British Prime Minister David Cameron issued an apology on behalf of the British government for the “unjustified and unjustifiable” killings of thirteen people in Londonderry, Northern Ireland in 1972 – an event now famously known as Bloody Sunday. It was a monumental week as far as intended healing and reconciliation goes.

The announcements in London and Manitoba were worlds apart, geographically and politically, but they both follow on three decades worth of government apologies for everything from the Irish potato famine to the 18th century slave trade. In Canada, the official apology in 1988 to the 22,000 Japanese Canadians who were forcibly relocated during the Second World War and whose property was confiscated and sold by the government marked the beginning of a period of requests from other groups, such as the Chinese, Ukranian and Italian communities, for official acknowledgment of state wrongdoing.

Successive federal governments dismissed these claims however in 2006, the Conservative government made an official apology and provided redress to Chinese Canadians, or their surviving spouses, who paid a head tax to come to Canada between 1885 and 1947 while establishing Community Historical Recognition Program and National Historical Program “to commemorate and educate Canadians about the historical experiences and contributions of ethno-cultural communities affected by wartime measures and immigration restrictions that were applied in Canada.”

There is significant debate about the value of state apologies and state-sponsored efforts at reconciliation. Works such as The Politics of Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa that discuss the post-Apartheid experience critique such efforts where they feed into government attempts to gain legitimacy.

I confess to being of two minds about the politics of apology. As a historian, I question the politicized nature of government apologies and the authenticity and integrity of their intentions. Did Brian Mulroney apologize to Japanese Canadians because he really felt that what happened was wrong? Or did he just want people to vote for him (and for Free Trade)? On a personal level, I also struggle with the impact of government apologies on the community involved. My grandfather was a fisherman in Tofino (on the west coast of Vancouver Island) when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour. His boat was taken by the Canadian government. My father, who was 2 years old at the time, and his parents were interned. One of my uncles was born in a camp. Another uncle later became very active in the campaign for redress. And yet growing up, my father never spoke to me of the experience.

I vividly recall being at a friend’s cottage and having her dad say to me, “is your family affected by redress?” I had no idea what he was talking about. It turns out we were and that, ironically, my parents used the compensation to fix our house, literally putting a new roof over our heads, and then taking my brothers and I on our first trip to Vancouver Island. For years, however, I remained ambivalent about the value of political apologies. I did not feel that the government was honestly apologetic in its intents and I resented the suggestion that because an apology had been issued, a wrong was corrected. In 2007, the Canadian author and poet, Roy Miki, wrote a book called Redress: Inside the Japanese Call for Justice (2007). In the introduction he gave voice to some of my reservations: “In a strange twist, and one that haunted me in subsequent years…Art (his brother and a leader in the redress campaign) could see himself as a “Canadian” because he had become the “Japanese Canadian” named in the redress settlement.” Until reading Miki’s book, I had been reluctant to see any benefits to the apology. As I read on however, it dawned on me that the value of the apology was not in the words themselves but in having a forum in which history could be made known, debated, and incorporated into the national conscience. If there is a lesson to be learned from the Japanese Canadian experience, it is that open forums are necessary so that people can speak. Apologies and money are insufficient. That is happening in Winnipeg. It is not clear whether it will happen in the case of Londonderry, Northern Ireland.

As the undertakings in London and Winnipeg reveal, more than ever the global media is providing an important forum for raising awareness so that what happens in one part of the world reverberates in others. When an apology is issued in England or when reconciliation begins in Canada, news of such undertakings now have the potential to reach an international audience and to effect international change. Governor General Michaëlle Jean’s declaration that it is necessary to talk about history to “break the wall of indifference” can reverberate with meaning far beyond Canada.

Laura Madokoro is a PhD candidate in history at the University of British Columbia.  She studies twentieth century global migration with a special focus on political refugees in Asia and the Commonwealth in the post-1945 period.

For another post on government apologies on see Teresa Iacobelli‘s Acts of Contrition: Rethinking the Purpose and Effect of Government Apologies, posted in February 2010.

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