Official historical apologies are a tricky business. They are also necessary and important if nations truly wish to charter a new course. In order to do so a nation must confront its history with honesty and integrity.
Canada has at times become the butt of jokes for its propensity to apologize for slights and perceived wrongdoings. However, reality has also shown that Canada has become a leader in recognizing the importance of historical apologies as a means by which to move forward.
The latest official apology offered to the Canadian Sikh community for our handling of the Komagata Maru tragedy is a case in point. In 1914, a crowded, leased Japanese ship that was once a coal carrier, harbouring over 350 hopeful Sikh refugees from India, docked at the Vancouver harbour. They had a dream for their families, and Canada was the home for their dreams.
A policy of what can only be deemed racist ensured that Canada’s doors remained closed to these Sikh dreamers. All were sent back.
An apology in 2008 by then-prime minister Stephen Harper at a Sikh festival in Surrey, B.C., was a good start at recognizing Canada’s sad complicity. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s apology in the House of Commons this past May made it official.
Another boatload of stateless people was refused entry into Canada. As a result, 250 passengers were forcibly returned to Europe and murdered. The MS St. Louis set sail for Cuba in May 1939 with over 900 Jews desperately trying to escape the oncoming Nazi inferno. On the voyage, their Cuban travel permits were rescinded, leaving the passengers stranded. Appeals for refuge to other governments, including Canada’s, were rejected.
This was sadly no surprise. As Irving Abella and Harold Troper reported in their seminal study on Canadian immigration practices from 1933-1948, None is too many, Canada refused to even consider to allow European Jews into the country. The title of the study came from an immigration functionary in the Mackenzie King government when asked how many Jews would be permitted to enter Canada.
Abella noted about the time, “It was a Canada with immigration policies that were racist and exclusionary, a country blanketed by an oppressive anti-Semitism in which Jews were the pariahs of Canadian society, demeaned, despised and discriminated against.”
Pity was not even extended to Jewish children. Charlotte Whitton, Canada’s first female mayor of a major Canadian city (Ottawa, where she became mayor in 1951), and a fierce fighter for gender equality, was the director of the Canadian Council on Child Welfare during World War II. Abella and Troper have documented how she actively advocated against accepting European Jewish children orphaned by Hitler’s madness. As a result, many ended up victims of the Holocaust.
As a country, we are in a far better place today than we were 70 years ago. Anti-Semitism exists, but has the opprobrium of the vast majority of Canadians; racism, while never fully erased, is nonetheless targeted by all levels of government; gender equality has become not just part of a conversation but a reality; and the recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission has helped Canadians understand our role in the genocide perpetrated against our indigenous people. The latter has resulted in a much needed and heartfelt official apology and we have started down the road toward resolution.
In 2008, Jason Kenney, then minister of immigration, provided funding for a memorial to the St. Louis at Pier 21 in Halifax. This was embraced by our community. Last month, Conservative MP Deepak Obhrai called on the government to offer an apology to the Jewish community for turning away the MS St. Louis.
Surely, in the spirit of confronting and coming to terms with our history, it is time for Canada to finally offer an official apology to Canadian Jewry. Such a gesture would add immeasurably to the dignity of a nation that is trying to do the right thing.