Canada seeking to make amends for its past

Canada seeking to make amends for its past

Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan

Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan


ON Wednesdays in the summer, thousands of citizens, including whole families, jam the Canadian Parliament’s front laws and, with yoga music and instructions blaring, they exercise with determination - some energetically, others, burdened with age or weight, manage just a little bit. But all are enthusiastic participants in keeping the body and mind fit.

On this May 18, however, the Parliament in Ottawa offered another intriguing sight - while the exercisers stretched their arms and legs oblivious to those around them, hundreds of Canadian Sikhs, many from British Columbia province, trudged to the Parliament buildings for a unique occasion: an apology from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on the wrong that was done to their ancestors more than a hundred years ago.

Numerous countries have wronged some people in the past. But not many acknowledge such past injustices. Even fewer apologize or try to make amends. Canada stands out for admitting that it behaved wrongly at times and for its determination to ensure that the wrongs are never repeated.
Prime Minister Brian Mulroney apologized in 1988 to Japanese Canadians for having interned Japanese Canadians, even those who were born in Canada, in camps during the Second World War. It was only two years after the end of the war that they were let go.

The Mulroney government also set up a Race Relations Foundation to fight racism on an ongoing basis.

In 2006 Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized to Chinese Canadians who were singled out in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for a punitive “head tax” to discourage their coming to Canada.

The Harper government also apologized in 2008 to the Aboriginal people for Canada’s forcing them to go to Christian residential schools, which were established in the 1880s and only closed in 1996. Some 150,000 Aboriginal, Inuit (Eskimo) and Metis (mixed) children were forcibly sent to these schools where they were treated harshly and forbidden to speak their own language, in an effort to strip them of their culture and spiritualism and covert them to Christianity. Some were also abused physically and emotionally and thousands died. The government also established a $1.9 billion fund to help the survivors.

Now Justin Trudeau has apologized unreservedly for the May 1914 Komagata Maru incident. This Japanese ship was bringing 376 Indian passengers, mostly Sikhs but also Muslims and Hindus, to Canada. The ship waited for two months outside Canadian ports but was denied entry - and also food.
When the ship was forced to return to India a riot broke out in Kolkata, then known as Calcutta, and 19 passengers and Indian officials were killed.

It was only under Prime Minister Lester Pearson in the 1960s that Canada abandoned its racist policy and made entry to Canada based on merit. His successor, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, proclaimed Canada’s multicultural policy which, in essence, declared that Canadians are a diverse people and that all Canadians should feel free to retain their culture and traditions and share those with their fellow Canadians to forge a distinctly Canadian identity.

Canada’s refugee policy went one step further. While its immigration policy accepts those for permanent settlement who are likely to succeed in Canada - because of family ties, education, technical skills or entrepreneurship, its refugee policy is based on accepting people who face more than a mere possibility of persecution or cruel and unusual treatment or punishment in their own countries for whatever reason, usually race, religion, gender, ethnicity or imputed or real political opinion.

Ironically, the elder Trudeau, Justin’s late father, was opposed to Canada apologizing for its past wrongs. He argued that it is unfair that the present generation should have to apologize for the misdeeds of another generation. Canadians of today had nothing to do with such behavior and should not have to bear that responsibility.

However, Canadians are gradually evolving into a more and more open and inclusive society. They have not yet apologized for some other actions - for example, turning back a ship carrying Jewish refugees who were fleeing from Nazi persecution in the 1940s or for the Scalping Proclamation in 1749 which placed a bounty on the heads of Mi’kmaq people in Nova Scotia as a part of Canada’s cultural genocide against its Aboriginal people.

Canada since then has welcomed numerous refugees and immigrants, including the Ugandan Asians expelled by Idi Amin, the boat people fleeing Communist Vietnam and now the Syrian refugees seeking to escape death and torture. Prime Minister Trudeau himself went to the airport to receive the first batch of Syrian refugees and told them they “were welcome in their new country and that they had nothing to fear here.”

Trudeau has also accepted the findings of the Aboriginal Truth and Reconciliation Commission and has said his government will try to implement them. It has also announced that it fully supports and would implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples.

This won’t be easy. But give Canada full marks for its humanitarian and just policies which began several decades ago but now are gaining momentum under Trudeau’s inspiring leadership.

— Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan is a retired Canadian journalist, civil servant and refugee judge.