Most Canadians were raised to apologize for their mistakes, not just as citizens but as people. And our government, despite how powerful and distant it can sometimes seem, is made up of people through and through. When it recognizes its mistakes, it should apologize, too.
Canada cannot heal the wounds it caused the 907 German Jews who fled the Nazi menace in 1939 and crossed the Atlantic, only to be met by cold selfishness at our border. We turned them away. In doing so, we insulted not only them but the entire Jewish community, as the MS St. Louis’ desperate passengers sailed back into one of the deepest pains humanity has ever felt.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Trudeau delivered yet another high-profile apology for his own government’s conduct: it was Mackenzie King, a Liberal, who refused the refugees 79 years ago.
The anti-Semitic rot lives on today. Last month, 11 Jewish people were killed in their place of worship at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue; this past February, someone scrawled a swastika in an Essex Hall elevator.
What can an apology do to help? When we as individuals apologize to those we’ve hurt, we know we can’t undo the harms we brought. Our hope is that Canadian Jews, and those around the world, are in some way consoled or heartened by the Prime Minister’s gesture. This is a positive start. And we ask students to think about their government’s treatment of the downtrodden and to remember it.
Because apologies are a path to awareness. Too few people seemed aware of the St. Louis before this apology, and were likewise ignorant of the Komagata Maru or of the extent of our residential school system and the trail of tears. Years of silence about these issues have caused their failures to recur in a terrible cycle. As Canada’s borders continue to meet refugees, in a migrant crisis larger than what the Holocaust precipitated, we accept some but so much less than many smaller, more populous nations.
Naturally, apologies do not bind Trudeau to positive action; an apology for residential schools can, in the Liberal’s politics, be followed by the endorsement of invasive pipelines which harm Canada’s Indigenous peoples. The ultimate goal must be a Canadian government that does not comprise the values they tell the House of Commons are uncompromisable. However, this ideal begins with what an apology can be: atonement, humility and transparency.
The Liberal playbook has included a pattern of apologies whose international novelty has drawn both criticism and renown. The command of government may be an odd mix with the sincerity of saying sorry, and it is certainly easier for Trudeau to apologize for something that occurred before his birth — a luxury many others don't have.
And so the place of apologies in international relations may remain unclear — Do we look weak? Do too many apologies seem insincere to their recipients? In this uncertain territory, we should act with integrity: if you have done wrong, apologize. As helpless as it may be to reconciling our past failures, humanity relies on the ritual of remorse, and for good reason.