Column

Saying sorry is fine, but only to a point

Apologizing to our natives for past wrongs is like asking Africans to say they are sorry for eating missionaries

Barbara Amiel May 25 1998
Column

Saying sorry is fine, but only to a point

Apologizing to our natives for past wrongs is like asking Africans to say they are sorry for eating missionaries

Barbara Amiel May 25 1998

Saying sorry is fine, but only to a point

Column

Barbara Amiel

Apologizing to our natives for past wrongs is like asking Africans to say they are sorry for eating missionaries

Last week's American newspapers carried this item. "President Bill Clinton today apologized to Antarctica. Mr. Clinton came to this frozen setting to complete what he calls 'this tour of tears.' Aides say that Mr. Clinton, who has spoken often of his 'legacy,' believes that history will remember him not for pioneering new dimensions in executive privilege,

but for his ‘foreign policy of creative contrition.’

“President Clinton said he regretted that during the Cold War, the policy of the United States ‘subordinated the true interests of Antarctica to geopolitical calculations arising from the conflict with the former Soviet Union.’ Mr. Clinton praised the recent decision of San Francisco authorities to require high-school students to read at least one novel from ‘the canon of Antarctic classics.’ America, he said, is ‘a gorgeous mosaic of multiculturalism that must include snow and ice.’ ”

One could not fail to notice the same moving theme in the thoughts of our own leader, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, as voiced by his Indian affairs minister, Jane Stewart. Ms. Stewart recently apologized to our northern peoples in a lengthy “statement of reconciliation” as part of the government’s response to the report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.

The response was part of a document named “Gathering Strength.” Ms. Stewart promised a new public education campaign to “build more balance, realistic and informed perspectives with respect to aboriginal people.” Speaking of aboriginals who suffered abuse at government-run residential schools, she said: “For those of you who suffered this tragedy, we are deeply sorry.” Hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation will be paid.

Though the theme and prose is remarkably similar—whether it is Mr. Clinton’s tour of tears or Canada’s statement of reconciliation together with our “Gathering Strength” commitment—the veracity of the two statements have little in common. The first is fiction, a parody by American columnist George F. Will. The second, hélas!, is the real thing. Yes, there is a Ms. Stewart and she said all that stuff.

These days, the federal government apologizes a lot. It has not yet apologized for our usurious income tax rates, the destruction of our health-care system or Allan Rock, but it does apologize for people getting hepatitis C and for the rounding up of Japanese civilians in 1942.

I have an ambivalence about this. On one hand, the discovery by all our provincial premiers, the Reform party and ultimately the federal Liberals that compensating people infected through tainted blood is a rewarding political issue shows the essential decency of Canadian society. No matter how much you deride

the fuzzy thinking behind their decision, it is absolutely heartwarming to live in a place where the shrewd politician knows that one way to get ahead is to give away more taxpayers’ money than other politicians.

But the general argument against this apology mania is obvious. We now view life and society in a way where every aspect of the human situation from sickness to strife to natural catastrophe is seen as the responsibility of society at large for which it needs to apologize in retrospect and pay compensation. This has in itself become a sickness. The most astonishing example of this was the man who unsuccessfully jumped in front of a New York City subway train and then sued the transit system for not preventing his suicide attempt. It was settled out of court.

Jurisdictions in Canada are following U.S. state governments that are happily suing tobacco companies for the medical costs of the illnesses they say are caused by tobacco, and that includes clearly the period of time when the harmfulness was known— not only to the companies, but to users of tobacco and to the states and governments that licensed and taxed its sale—and was indicated by warning notices printed in large type on tobacco products.

When people, as in the United States, seriously hold the government responsible for incorrect assessments of an earthquake’s strength, you can see a mentality that results in societies becoming wards of the state. It is an abrogation of both personal responsibility and the acceptance of fate and ill fortune. It is a perfectly reasonable matter that we look to the government for emergency and humanitarian aid after devastating tornadoes or earthquakes. But it is not a matter for litigation if the government predicts a tornado whose winds are higher than it forecast.

In addition, we seem to have entered into an entirely ahistorical era. It makes no more sense for our government to apologize to our native peoples for past treatment than it would to ask today’s Africans to apologize for every missionary who was eaten there in the past. You can’t look at the eating of a 19th-century missionary through today’s eyes. In the context of the culture of the times, such behavior was not unreasonable. On the other hand, there is no question that the murdering of aid workers and missionaries, which happens commonly enough today from Chechnya to Rwanda—if not their eating—is wrong.

If we keep apologizing and compensating for past wrongs, we manufacture an economic burden on society that is inescapable and endless. We will always be discovering new things we did wrong. We ought to be able to learn our lessons and not do the same wrongs. But the best thing we can do is say “we are sorry.” Period. Compensation cheque will not follow. Sorry.