The passing of history

It is a fairly common and mainstream opinion to deride formal apologies from governmental institutions for historical wrongs. Often it is couched in the language of privilege: “why should the government apologize for something that happened a hundred years ago?” , as though there is a statue of limitations on right and wrong. Other times it comes from a place of arch-liberal cynicism: “words are cheap and easy. An apology is meaningless – just a political stunt to deflect attention”.

There is some superficial legitimacy to both of these responses. After all, if the current government has not committed an action, what exactly does an apology mean? That they feel just super awful about the whole thing? That they think they are somehow responsible for actions that took place before they were elected into office? That we should all, by extension, feel guilty for something over which we had no control?

In my eyes, an apology, properly done, affords us the opportunity to do two things. The first is to, in an entirely inadequate way, attempt to recognize and ease the pain of those who have suffered injustice at the hands of a government whose duties ostensibly include protecting people from victimization (rather than participating in it). The second and more important function of these apologies is to acknowledge our history, both good and bad. Especially when our history is so ugly:

Charlie Sang Now Quan was remembered Saturday as an ordinary man with extraordinary accomplishments, an unlikely activist who fought in his 90s to right the wrongs of Canada’s Chinese head tax and Exclusion Act. Quan, who was one of the oldest remaining head tax payers, died Feb. 23 in Vancouver. He was 105. Quan came to Canada in 1923 from Hoyping, China, and was forced to pay the $500 head tax — equivalent to about two years’ wages in China at the time.*

I feel that it is important for me to be clear: I am now, as I have ever been, a proud Canadian. Canada’s contribution to the world and its commitment to its citizens is enviable, and given the many options of places that I could live, there are few countries I’d rather be in. That being said, I still recognize that Canada has a dark past that we still have yet to fully acknowledge. There are perhaps few examples more distasteful and shameful than the ‘head tax’ levied on Chinese immigrants in the early 20th century. Considering the number of Chinese migrants who were instrumental to the building of this country, and the disgraceful way in which those contributions were minimized and people systematically brutalized, we must add the historical fact of the ‘head tax’ to the narrative of Canada’s supposedly welcoming and tolerant history.

Mr. Quan fought for years, and through three prime ministers, for a formal apology. He did not do this out of zeal for a sweet government handout (which, eventually, he got) – he did it because there is a value in an apology. He did it because there is something to be said for recognizing when we, as a society, have done wrong. He did it because the ‘head tax’ did not just take his money, it took his dignity:

When the federal government in 2006 issued an official apology and tax redress cheques of $20,000 to survivors and spouses, Quan was among the first to receive his. “The next day, I went down to visit him and he had this incredibly big smile on his face,” Tan said. “He came up to me and he said, ‘Sid, I’m not a chink any more. I get my money back.’ ”

It is quite easy (and popular) to say “why can’t (group) just get over it?” If you can survive wading into the chest-high privilege that such statement is dripping with, there is perhaps the tiniest kernel of a valid question: what is the value in holding on to historical wrongs instead of working to improve the future? Of course my pat answer is that we ought not make our way into the future without a firm grasp of our past. Beyond that though, the question is simply a kind of mass-scale type of gaslighting, in which wronged groups are made to feel as though they are crazy for demanding justice from the majority. “Letting things go” is a behaviour that does nothing more than maintain the status quo, essentially ensuring that no lessons are learned and, thus, no improvements made.

Mr. Quan’s passing should be noted not so much for the fact of his death, but for the remarkable work of his life. As Canada “debates” the passage of a new immigration bill (put in quotes because the Republican North government is more or less completely uninterested in listening to any voice that isn’t their own), the grievous errors that we’ve committed in the past must not be forgotten or ignored. We are presented with an opportunity to put into practice the lessons we have learned from sober examination of our history, and to not waste the efforts of this brave Canadian.

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*The Vancouver Sun, adhering to its usual standards of journalistic excellence, gets Mr. Quan’s name wrong in the last paragraph.


  1. says

    Well said. There is also the fact that while the individuals may have changed, the institution remains the institution that committed the wrongs.

    I, for one, would welcome an apology by the British Government for the (many and varied) wrongs committed by that government both against Ireland and Irish people in the UK. The British Government is not, however, likely to do so (lacking The Apology Act of Canada).

    Apologies matter. The state of today is built on the crimes and wrongs of the past, and needs to account for that.

  2. says

    Excellent piece.

    I think of when people talk about “getting over it” they are subtly blaming victims for being victims. It is similar to “you should stand up for yourself more” or “you shouldn’t walk down empty alleys at night,” All great advice before being victimized but the worst thing you can say after someone is a victim.

    And I absolutely agree that it is erroneous to assume we can somehow work our way into a future without first addressing our past. Ignoring our mistakes makes us more prone to making them again. (Insert some adage about being doomed to repeat history here.)

  3. Flex says

    While your point about remembering history is important, I don’t believe that the formal apology itself is “entirely inadequate”.

    A formal apology should include some specific aspects:

    1. We understand that what the government at that time did was morally wrong. That the decisions were made by different people and at a time when these moral issues were not considered as important does not excuse the injustice.
    2. We recognize that the opportunity for redress has largely passed. If it was in our power to change the past and correct this mistake at the time, we would attempt to do so. As it is, all that can be said is that we are sorry it happened.
    3. We will do our best to prevent such an event from ever happening again. The future is uncertain, and our successors may not feel as we do, but we will attempt to communicate that these actions were morally wrong to our successors, and establish safeguards where possible to avoid repeating this mistake.

    Most, if not all, countries have some history of either institutionalized immorality or events which simply got out of control. An apology, with the addition of appropriate safeguards to prevent recurrence, can go a long way toward eliminating festering discontent within a population. Who knows, they may even trust their government more.

    Provided the apology is sincere.

  4. Alice in Wonderland says

    This is remarkably similar to the series of steps I go through with my 4-year-old son whenever he’s done something that requires an apology (ex: hit another child or taken their toy). I mean, literally, I verbalize the three steps for him every time.
    1) Say “sorry”.
    2) See if there’s a way to make it better (sometimes there is, sometimes there isn’t; with hitting, pretty much what’s done is done)
    3) Work on not doing it again (usually phrased positively: next time, be gentle with your friend; next time, use your words and ask if you can play with the toy).

    Hm. So what we’re saying is, we should be holding the government to at least the standards to which we’d hold a 4-year-old child?

  5. says

    What they are saying is that you hold your four old child to a standard that we should also hold for all people in that respect.

    That it is a standard of decency that both a four year old and a government are capable of achieving.

    That there is no reason aside from lack of empathy that prevents them from achieving it.

  6. 24fps says

    My grandfather was a British Home Child – here is a link to a (woefully inadequate but concise) description. One fact that is missing is that Canada’s Department of Agriculture subsidized the charities scheme of sending children as indentured servants with a calculation of about $2 a head.

    I wish I could get the BHC descendant community (very few BHCs are still alive) to press as hard as the Chinese, Japanese and Ukrainian groups for an apology from the Canadian government. Internalized shame passed down the generations and the ability to blend in has worked against it, I think. Nevertheless, Britain has apologized, Australia has apologized, but not Canada.

    Oh Canada. So proud.

  7. Pen says

    @1 I would welcome an apology from the British government for the land enclosures + the return of said land to public ownership. And a number of other things. I’m not likely to get them in a climate where the government is talking about selling off our police force, roads and personal data to the highest bidder.

    On the other hand, with political history a virtual non-stop and on-going show of oppression and atrocities by elites of whoever they can get their hands on, where do we draw a line and worry about what they’re still doing now? It’s too easy to apologise for the past as a distraction from the present. It carries the implication that ‘we’ are somehow doing better.

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