11 June 2008

Why am I apologizing?

In 1492, when Columbus sailed the ocean blue, he brought catastrophe down upon the Native people of the Americas. He introduced greedy and rapacious empires to two unspoiled continents and they took full advantage. The aboriginals were obliterated by disease, their lands were stolen, many were enslaved, others had their children taken from them ... the list of tragedy and abuse is long and sordid. Few peoples have suffered such a cataclysm.

Today, Prime Minister Stephen Harper will apologize on behalf of you and I, and all Canadians, for our country's role in one component of this story: the Canadian Indian residential school policy. This seems like the right thing to do. It seems appropriate, even noble. And yet. And yet ... there is something not quite right about it, something offensive even. Mr. Harper is apologizing on my behalf, but I have done nothing wrong. I didn't elect the governments that established the residential schools and I certainly wouldn't have supported the churches running the schools. I have little use for organized religion and wouldn't put churches in charge of much of anything, certainly not children.

So why am I apologizing, by proxy, for offences I'm not guilty of? I am apologizing for nothing I have done but simply for who I am, i.e. a Canadian. I am guilty only by association.

Yet isn't guilt by association the problem? Isn't this why Japanese-Canadians were taken from their homes in the 1940s and interned in camps? They had committed no crimes, they were guilty simply for being Japanese.

Or as Phil Fontaine, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations puts it: "We were unjustly wronged as a people over generations simply because of who we were." Exactly. And now Canadians innocent of these wrongs are apologizing not for what they have done but simply because of who they are. The source of the wrongs -- guilt by association -- is being perpetuated.

I am prepared to accept responsibility for my actions. I'll go further than that and, as a citizen of a democracy, accept responsibility for the actions of a government I vote for. But I am not guilty of the wrongs of previous generations and do not deserve to be charged with their sins and will not accept responsibility for them. My responsibility is to the wrongs of the present, the ones I can do something about. Only if I fail there, am I to be apologized for. I will not wallow in misplaced guilt.

As moral beings, we have a responsibility to help the disadvantaged in our society, regardless of why they are disadvantaged, to live a life of dignity. Indeed, why they are disadvantaged is irrelevant, except in helping us understand the challenges they face.

The tragedy of the aboriginal people should be accurately recorded in history and remembered. Understanding the past is essential to understanding the present and thereby to righting those historic wrongs that persist, perhaps in other forms, into the present. But the guilt for those wrongs belongs solely with those who perpetrated them. As for guilt by association, it too should become a thing of the past.

1 comment:

  1. A very accurate appraisal of what is becoming a rather sorry practice - apologizing for the actions of our ancestors whose lives and morals were defined and molded by morals and beliefs long since abandoned by generations that followed. By today's standards, their actions can and often do appear cruel and inhumane but I cannot and will not apologize for the actions of my father or his father whatever moral voices they listened to. The fact that we are appalled by the treatment of native Canadians by the churches, government,et al proves that our moral compasses are much accurate than those carried by our ancestors and as such we will hopefully avoid repeating their mistakes. However an apology is ludricrous - those who should be apologizing are dead as are those who would be accepting it. We are just sympathetic descendants. no more. This practice of apologizing has been born of a sorry mix of political correctness, hypersensitivity, social trendiness, New Age sensitivities, and the popular delusion that there can ever be anything known as "closure". Offering an apology is too little, too late, just another pretension. Actions, not words, are the stuff of true apologies so, Mr. Harper, direct your efforts towards sincere promises and keep them! A tough task for a politician, I know, but if you do, I'm almost certain your grandson won't have to apologize to anyone on your behalf.