Canada doesn’t have a race problem

Wow, it’s been a while since I did one of these.

Remember a month ago when I talked about a campaign to get the Crown to recognize the abhorrent and racist treatment of New Brunswick’s black population?

This is an interesting bit of history that I wasn’t aware of. Apparently under the charter that created the city of St. John, its black inhabitants were not granted the rights of citizens. They were barred from living within the city’s walls or fishing in the outlying rivers. Even though they helped build the city, they were disallowed from reaping the fruits of their labour – not because of systematic, subtle racism, but because of an official decree.

The whole point of apologies like this isn’t to make people feel guilty for what their ancestors did, but to have an honest accounting of our history. Knowledge of our history allows us to put the present into context – how did we get here? The alternative is to just make up explanations that fit our prejudices (a.k.a. conservatism).

However, an element of these apologies has to be official recognition that it happened. Part of an apology is the admission that an act was wrong. Simply saying “well you got over it, so it couldn’t have been that bad” is not sufficient. Well, at least not unless you’re David Johnston:

The Governor General won’t apologize to Saint John’s black community for a 1785 decree that severely restricted where they could live or fish in the southern New Brunswick city.

Buckingham Palace forwarded the request to Gov. Gen. David Johnston so that he could consult with federal ministers. An official at Rideau Hall said in a letter to Peters that they could not meet his request for an apology.

Racism isn’t abstract or historical. It is real, and it still lives with us. I went to Waterloo while David Johnston was the president – he struck me as a good and fair person. However, to deny the black community even the courtesy of an official apology – a move that has ample precedent – smacks of racism.

I’m going to follow this story and see if I can get more information about why the request was denied, but I’m not holding out any hope for a forthcoming explanation.

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  1. CB says

    I’ve always wondered why governments are so hesitant to offer apologies for what are often quite obviously horrendous violations of human rights. (recall residential schooling, Japanese interment in WWII etc.)

    I would suggest, however, that it has more to do with avoiding litigation rather than a callous refusal to admit past wrongs. Courts have been more than willing to ignore statutes of limitation when it comes to government wrongs. An apology to an indeterminate class of people (read: every black person who lived in NB while the Charter existed in this form and all their descendants) could result in litigation or public outcry for a large cash settlement.

    The GG is a smart man and a legal scholar – I’m sure he obtained advice on this matter first. The optics aren’t good though.

  2. says

    Surely they could bring a case without a formal apology though, if they can demonstrate culpability. Even if that’s not the case, surely the GG’s office can draft some kind of agreement that shields them from liability.

    Anyway, I share your suspicion that there’s more going on here, since I also like the GG.

  3. CB says

    Yes they could certainly bring a case without the apology – in fact it’s likely that the apology would carry little weight in a court of law (unless it’s a jury trial…) if it were admissable at all.

    It should also be recalled that the GG is a ceremonial title at best in Canada. We as a country get pretty huffy when an unelected “head of state” goes against the will of the electorate. Hence – the British Crown deferred to the GG on a matter relating to Canadian citizens, who in turn defers to the executive behind closed doors. Our former GG was hastily whisked out of office for her slightly more public disagreements with the PM.

    I’m not saying that DJ’s decision in this regard was correct, but I think in spite of the source of the denial, it wasn’t his decision to make.

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