The BC Liberal Party's plan to rack up some "quick wins" before the May election by identifying aggrieved ethnic communities they could apologize to has been in the news a lot lately. It's not only become a case study on how to screw up the whole idea of an apology, but it's also been the catalyst for some excellent discussion about what makes an apology valid and meaningful, and who apologies serve.
Everyone from philosophers to ordinary Joes like me has thought and argued about the reason suffering exists in the world. For atheists it's one of the "proofs" that God couldn't possibly exist. For the religious, it's one of God's mysterious ways, answerable only with faith. Since we seem to be stuck with it either way, it's our ability to find higher purpose in the nasty bits of life that gives our lives meaning and makes them more than merely nasty, brutish, and short.
The suffering that people endure, especially at the hands of their fellow humans, has redeeming value only if it contributes in some way to the perfection of the human spirit.
Which brings us around to apologies, a litmus test for whether we've learned anything from our own or others' suffering. Many people question the point of apologizing for historical wrongs; things done by people long ago in which we played no part. You could say that the fact that we are now enjoying the benefits that flowed from historical wrongs makes us as responsible as the perpetrators. But we neither planned nor asked for this, so it's difficult to feel the genuine contrition that is necessary for an apology to be meaningful and real.
And with so many historical wrongs to atone for where do we begin? How do we decide what to apologise for first?
Leaving the idea of rank ordering aside, I'd like to believe - I do believe - that the internment of Canadians of Japanese descent could never happen again in Canada because the government's official apology not only acknowledged that wrong was done, but also demonstrated that reflecting and acting on its consequences has made us better people and has made Canada a better country. Baby steps, maybe, but those are the signs of an apology that means something which, in turn, gives suffering meaning.
I'd like to be able to say that the Komagata Maru incident or the Chinese head tax had served a similar noble purpose, but one could just as easily argue that racism in the immigration system is merely more subtle and devious now. And the absolute panic that ensues every time a ship appears over the horizon full of refugees, queue jumpers, people in need of protection, people trying to scam the system, victims, terrorists, tells me that we still haven't quite worked through those lessons yet.
We should have begun by apologizing for the wrongs that have been done to First Nations in Canada, but that would be premature because it's clear we still have so many lessons to learn.
And that's why apologies made in the cynical pursuit of "quick wins" are such a backwards step. Their hollowness only rubs salt in old wounds.
Dr. Joe Greenholtz is a regulated Canadian immigration consultant (RCIC) and a director of the Premier Canadian Immigration Co-op. He also sits on the Richmond intercultural Advisory Committee. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.