Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said that he will make an apology in the House of Commons for the government of Canada’s 1939 decision to turn away the refugee ship MS St. Louis. The ship, carrying 907 German Jews, was denied entry at most North American and Caribbean ports before returning to Europe. Around half of the passengers were then accepted by the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, France and Belgium. About 500 were returned to Germany, where 254 were murdered by the Nazis.
Apologizing for the past has become common in Canada. Trudeau himself has apologized for Canada’s refusal in 1914 to allow the docking of the Komagata Maru, a ship carrying 376 migrants, mostly Sikh; apologized to gays and lesbians who were discriminated against by government in the past; exonerated six Tsilhqot’in chiefs who were hanged in 1864; and apologized to survivors of the Indian residential school system in Newfoundland and Labrador. The latter apology was necessary because this particular group was excluded from the 2008 residential schools apology made by Stephen Harper, when he was prime minister, because the schools there were not operated by the government of Canada. Harper also apologized, in 2006, for a head tax that penalized Chinese immigrants. Brian Mulroney, when he was prime minister, apologized, in 1988, for the internment of Japanese Canadians.
Such apologies are deeply important to the victimized communities, as evidenced by comments from Jewish community organizations last week.
“Canada is extraordinary not only because we strive to uphold the highest ideals,” said Shimon Koffler Fogel, chief executive officer of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, in a statement, “but also because we have the courage to address moments in our history when we failed to do so.… A formal apology will be a powerful statement to Holocaust survivors and their families, including St. Louis passengers who live in Canada today.”
Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre president Avi Benlolo said, “While an apology can never change the past, it can awaken the national conscience to ensure such grave mistakes are never repeated in the future.”
On the other hand, critics come from two sides: one arguing that we cannot change the past by apologizing in the present; the other contending that apologies are mere words.
The government’s recognition of past injustices is important, however. While political motivations are probably a factor in any government decision, this should not detract from the positive impacts an apology has on affected communities.
That said, if the objective is, as the prime minister and others have stated, to learn from the past and create a more just present and future, apologies should be accompanied by other undertakings, such as ongoing education, including curricula that teachers could download to contextualize issues, monuments at relevant locations marking the incidents (some of which already exist), a commitment to further commemoration or a host of other initiatives created in conjunction with affected communities.
Apologies, in other words, should not be the end of a conversation, but the start of a process.