Ujjal Dosanjh misses the real reason for apologizing for historical wrongs

Former NDP premier Ujjal Dosanjh opposes governments apologizing for historical wrongs, according to a Vancouver Sun article by Jeff Lee.

I respect Dosanjh's accomplishments as a provincial NDP cabinet minister and federal Liberal MP, but I flat-out disagree with him on this point.

I don't doubt Dosanjh's sincerity when he claims that apologies promote identity politics, which he sees as a divisive force in Canadian society. Nobody should be reduced to one aspect of their identity, be it their race, religion, occupation, class, gender, or sexual orientation. And he's correct when he says we're all ethnic, in our own way. 

But he overlooks the primary reason for these apologies: to help a broad cross-section of Canadians come to terms with our white-supremacist history and to acknowledge the devastating long-term impact this has had on the psyche of the nation.

That's in addition to comforting those who are the recipients of these apologies.

Keep in mind that many of the victims of these racist policies were beloved and productive members of the community, and sometimes highly assimilated.

For example, Japanese Canadians who were attending UBC and who were born in Canada were expelled only on the basis of their race. It didn't matter how much they were liked by their classmates.

Educational value of apologies

What's wrong with the government apologizing for rounding up these Japanese Canadians during the Second World War, stealing their possessions, and forcing them to live in crowded camps in the B.C. Interior? What possible harm can this create?

Especially when it helps the rest of Canadian society come to terms with the reality that this country was never a white nation.

The work of SFU professor Roy Miki and others in obtaining the historic apology to Japanese Canadians helped educate me about this issue. Over the years, I've spoken with several Japanese Canadians, including some in the workplace, about the impact that the internment had on their families.

As a result of these conversations, I learned that some Japanese Canadians born here ended up in Japan after the Second World War, where people starved to death. I also visited a preserved internment camp in New Denver, B.C., which furthered my education.

Had former prime minister Brian Mulroney not issued the apology in 1988, I may never have become aware of these things.

But according to Dosanjh, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau was correct not to apologize, and Mulroney was wrong. Poppycock.

And why shouldn't the government apologize for taking First Nations children from their families, separating them from their culture and language, and shoving them into church-run schools, where they were often physically, sexually, and mentally abused?

Especially when it helps the rest of Canadian society understand why poverty and incarceration rates of our First Nations brothers and sisters are significantly higher than average.

Why on earth shouldn't the B.C. government say it's sorry for collecting half the racist head-tax money levied only on Chinese immigrants in the early part of this century?

Especially when most British Columbians have no idea how much their government profited by looting one group of residents solely on the basis of their race.

I've spoken to members of families who were separated for generations by the head tax. It was in place from 1885 to 1923, and the Chinese exclusion legislation existed from 1923 to 1947.

If you talk to any Canadian-born person of Chinese descent whose family has been here for more than two or three generations, you'll hear heart-breaking tales. They're just as Canadian as the rest of us—but that's not how they're left to feel when injustices like these are ignored and papered over.

Polls in the past have demonstrated that Canadians of colour are less likely to vote and some feel less connected to the country.

I believe part of the reason is our collective refusal to acknowledge our white-supremacist history, which kept people of colour far too long out of the professions, out of the voting booth, and out of the history books.

Chinese Canadians were the first to raise the issue of an apology to head-tax payers. Former Vancouver East NDP MP Margaret Mitchell also advanced this idea many years before Dosanjh was elected to the legislature in 1991 and brought it up in the house.

In a 1983 letter to then-prime minister Trudeau, Mitchell wrote about how the federal government collected $24 million in head taxes from Chinese immigrants. She noted that many seniors who were subject to this discriminatory levy were never compensated.

"I therefore ask that the federal government undertake to compensate those Chinese-Canadian citizens who have proof of having paid the Head Tax, by repaying it with interest," Mitchell wrote.

Students demonstrate historical ignorance

When I taught journalism to college students between 1998 and 2005, I was often surprised by their lack of knowledge about Canada's racist history.

I always hoped that these journalism students would leave my course understanding two key points, even if they forgot everything else. 

• Canada was never a white country. It was always diverse, beyond just the aboriginal population.

• There is incredible diversity within so-called ethnic groups, and no one person can claim to speak for an entire community.

Prior to enrolling in my class, most of these bright young adults hadn't been taught about the 1862 smallpox epidemic that killed thousands of aboriginal people in B.C.

Many were not aware of the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which prohibited private interests from buying the "western lands" of North America from aboriginal people. The Royal Proclamation included a process for the Natives to sell their land to a monarch's representative, but only after a public meeting.

Most of these students also didn't know that when B.C. joined Confederation in 1871, the earlier document from King George III was utterly ignored. Control over land and resources reverted to the province. Aboriginal people remained under federal jurisdiction.

The vast majority of my curious and intelligent students had no idea that First Nations people became wards of the federal government in 1876 with passage of the Indian Act.

Under this legislation "sober and industrious" aboriginal males were entitled to apply to give up their rights as Indians to become British citizens, but those living in the western part of the country weren't eligible because they were too "uncivilized".

All but a very few of the students didn't know that there was a systematic effort to prevent people from coming to Canada from Asia. It wasn't just the head tax targeting the Chinese.

In 1908, the Canadian government reached agreement with the Japanese government to ensure that no more than 1,000 "coolies" per year would come to this country.

This came a year after a Vancouver mob went on a rampage, set Chinatown on fire, and attacked Japanese Candians.

Meanwhile, continuous-migration legislation ensured that immigrants had to make a direct voyage. That stopped South Asians, who were required to make a pit stop along the way for provisions.

In a heroic act of resistance, Gurdit Singh chartered the Komagata Maru in 1914 to challenge this racist legislation.

A primary objective of this trip was to get the passengers in court to fight the law. The authorities prevented this by turning the vessel back from Vancouver's harbour.

I only recently learned that the British government supported the continuous-migration law. That's because officials didn't want South Asians in Canada having greater legal rights than those living under colonial rule in British India. 

Political pandering crosses racial lines

Dosanjh is correct one one point. All political parties pander on occasion to ethnic communities. But all political parties also pander to the dominant culture, too. 

Witness Gordon Campbell's 2002 referendum on aboriginal treaty rights, which offered the majority a vote on a minority's legal rights.

The dominant culture is also being pandered to in the naming of our streets, schools, and parks, which serve to make some feel less Canadian than others.

Why should a racist opponent of aboriginal rights like former land commissioner Joseph Trutch or a land-thieving coal baron like James Dunsmuir be remembered across the province, whereas Gurdit Singh or the Japanese pioneers who built the fishing industry are mere footnotes of history?

It's because the politicians don't have the guts to make some necessary changes and create a bit of discomfort to recognize and acknowledge historic white supremacy. It's easier to name a new Vancouver street after a province, or a new downtown school after a local shopping mall.

Dosanjh is a brave man—far more courageous than I can ever claim to be. He stood up to terrorists who plotted the worst act of aviation terrorism in world history prior to 9/11.

For that, he was attacked by a pipe-wielding assailant, resulting in something like 80 stitches to his head.

As attorney general, he introduced some of the most progressive measures in the country with regard to same-sex couples, child support, spousal violence, and human rights.

But in condemning historical apologies, he misses the central point. These are not about integrating or not integrating "ethnic people".

Rather, they are about helping the rest of us question any smug legitimacy we might feel as "real Canadians" vis-a-vis those around us.

Comments (17) Add New Comment
How many appologies dose it take to lift a so called injustis of a foregone prime minister,many wrongs were done a long time ago,but we must get over it.Most of these people that were offended,jailed,etc are no loger alive,Mulrony alredy appologised.Now what do we drag it out again,Many nativs around the world died from smallpox ,not on purpose we didnt know.Lest they want more mony, let sleeping dogs rest.
Rating: -11
How about an apology for your spelling!!! Perhaps it is caused because of the limitations of using a hand held device?

But an apology is easy, and can mean a lot in so many situations. A sincere apology can mend many fences!
Rating: +8
David L.
Couldn't agree more PJ, whats past is past and no amount of apologies or money is going to change or make better whatever happened.
Rating: -8
Todd Wong
Good article Charlie - I am sure that Sir James Douglas, founding governor of British Columbia would be rolling over in his grave, at Dosanjh's recent comment.

1) because Douglas originally envisioned British Columbia as a place where people from all around the world could live in cultural harmony - and would have been dismayed at the actions by subsequent governors and premiers (see Patricia Roy's book "White Man's Province").

2) because a former premier (Dosanjh) who originally put forward the motion in 1992 (as a backbencher), that the BC Legislature support redress of the Head Tax and Chinese Exclusion Act and voted unanimously in favour" has recanted.

3) The US govt has both apologized for the internment of Japanese-Americans, and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. In 2002, New Zealand apologized for its Chinese Head Tax.

4) Major components for an apology are also understanding and education. So many of Canada's present population were unaware of the effects of the racist laws and restrictions, or still are. Witness the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and also the similar Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa following the end to Apartheid. With greater education will come more understanding of why such apologies are necessary in order for the nation to move forward together. Otherwise the politics of division and ignorance will continue in racism, denial and name calling.
Rating: -9
Oh great, let’s issue one general apology for all the wrongs committed by humans over the past millennia and then maybe we get on with fixing what’s wrong now. Gazing at how uninformed and ignorant some people of the 18th, 19th and 20th century were should be used as a measure of how far we have come and still have to go, not as a reason to issue lame and meaningless “doesn’t everyone feel better now” words.
Rating: +6
devils advocate
I dont hear any apologies coming from Haida natives for making slaves of other tribes...or even newer abuses by ethnic groups anywhere in the world...what is with this push to sooth so called whtie guilt...??

I dont have any guilt over what is perceived nowadays to be poor treatment 100 years ago...none whatsoever
Rating: 0
How many times do you have to say you're sorry? Almost every PM, Premier and Mayor have apologized in the past....enough already!!!
Rating: +4
Martin Dunphy
Some troll always pops up with the "Haida" justification, the same as climate-change deniers bring up the hacked emails. I was beginning to think it wouldn't happen this time. Thanks, devils advocate, it wouldn't be the same.
Rating: -12
Every one has to apologize ,as there hasnt been enough time and mony given and used.Why dose every gov.have to say sorry for the past 100plus years,exept for waiting for more handouts.
Rating: -2
Arthur Vandelay
I thought we were going to get through a story without Martin verbally abusing a poster with which he disagrees.
Rating: -3
1've been waiting since 1066 for the norman french to apologize for their takeover of most of the british isles
Rating: -14
Apologize fine. As for the cash payout--let's figure out where that head tax payer's descendant would be financially if their ancestor had stayed in China.When my dad arrived from Britain after the war, he as a white brit had a hard time getting a job. Canadians were first to be given work. I'd also like to remind people that when this issue was first brought up in the Chinese community, many older people said"Canada has been good to us." There was an article in the Sun last Thursday by an immigration historian which explained that the Canadian workers were worried about an influx of people who would work for less than a living wage. Chinese business people were not charged a head tax. The head tax was imposed to try and reduce the avalanche of cheap labour coming in to the detriment of living wages for Canadian workers. It wasn't a racist decision, but an economic one. Like the Chinese miners that were recently sent back. I think Mr. Dosanj is a brave man to say his opinion. Part of Chinese Canadian history is opium dens in Vancouver and Victoria. Could the Canadian government demand an apology and reparations for the addicts that were created by this Chinese enterprise?
Rating: -26
Lee L.
I'm glad to apologize for things that .. I .. did.
For things that people did when i wasn't alive and the people being apolgized to weren't alive?

I am not a fan of the the Chinese debt system where the living are responsible for the debts of their ancestors back 7 generations.

Rating: -14
We shouldn't be responsible for the sins of our fathers, true they behaved erratically due to an intense sense of insecurity and fear and may have had narrow minds. But we can apologize for the sins of our fathers and our sincerity will rest on the future that we do not repeat these sins.
Rating: +15
As a Haida, it seems if we all treated each other with respect ALL would find it much easier to live beside each other without guilt of our ancestors. I feel " making it right" is an important part of healing old AND recent wounds. Verbal abuse like physical, sexual, mental and emotional is still abuse. Go and heal yourself, then pass on the lessons or we can all inflict it on the next generations.
Rating: -1
James G
An excellent historical summary and useful because those who refuse to learn from history condemn all of us to re-live it.

My grandparents were seduced away from the coal fields of Lancashire in 1896. They ended up working in mines in Alberta as did their children, losing one son to a collapse and another to madness driven by grief. Does Canada owe them an apology?

They were neither treated differently, nor lied to, nor asked to pay a special levy based on something so arbitrary as race. They chose to emigrate and realized there could be both risks and rewards but they were treated like any other working class emigrants.

Cooperation, union affiliation and industrial action made their collective lives better although that struggle was almost always against the weight of both the mine owners and the state. Will there ever be apologies from a government for backing landowners, bankers, mineowners and industrialists against the needs of their hired labour? I find it unlikely but again I find it in myself to thank unions and those who build them for giving better lives to countless Canadians including myself.

One poster above mentioned opium and that reminds me how remembering history helps discussions like this. Before we go condemning any people as mere drug addicts, let's recall that it was Great Britain, in it's quest to break the Chinese monopoly in the tea trade that addicted large swaths of Chinese society to opium, highlighted by some imperialist wars.
Rating: +4
I like Charlie's point a lot in this article but I can't help but support Ujjal's a bit more. It is hard to envision a situation whereby an apology would not generate unhelpful cynicism. Who makes the apology, and what do they get out of it? Who stands there receiving the apology, standing in for the dead victims, and what do they get out of it? It's all lace, no hat.

Meaningful apology would tie the historical recognition of a wrongdoing into something meaningful. Not just a proclamation, but let us say a donation to create a memorial scholarship, or an improvement to human rights law.

Every culture has done something grievously wrong by 2013 standards.
Rating: -9
Add new comment
To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.