It is a fairly common and mainstream opinion to deride formal apologies from governmental institutions for historical wrongs. Often it is couched in the language of privilege: “why should the government apologize for something that happened a hundred years ago?” , as though there is a statue of limitations on right and wrong. Other times it comes from a place of arch-liberal cynicism: “words are cheap and easy. An apology is meaningless – just a political stunt to deflect attention”.
There is some superficial legitimacy to both of these responses. After all, if the current government has not committed an action, what exactly does an apology mean? That they feel just super awful about the whole thing? That they think they are somehow responsible for actions that took place before they were elected into office? That we should all, by extension, feel guilty for something over which we had no control?
In my eyes, an apology, properly done, affords us the opportunity to do two things. The first is to, in an entirely inadequate way, attempt to recognize and ease the pain of those who have suffered injustice at the hands of a government whose duties ostensibly include protecting people from victimization (rather than participating in it). The second and more important function of these apologies is to acknowledge our history, both good and bad. Especially when our history is so ugly:
Charlie Sang Now Quan was remembered Saturday as an ordinary man with extraordinary accomplishments, an unlikely activist who fought in his 90s to right the wrongs of Canada’s Chinese head tax and Exclusion Act. Quan, who was one of the oldest remaining head tax payers, died Feb. 23 in Vancouver. He was 105. Quan came to Canada in 1923 from Hoyping, China, and was forced to pay the $500 head tax — equivalent to about two years’ wages in China at the time.*
I feel that it is important for me to be clear: I am now, as I have ever been, a proud Canadian. Canada’s contribution to the world and its commitment to its citizens is enviable, and given the many options of places that I could live, there are few countries I’d rather be in. That being said, I still recognize that Canada has a dark past that we still have yet to fully acknowledge. There are perhaps few examples more distasteful and shameful than the ‘head tax’ levied on Chinese immigrants in the early 20th century. Considering the number of Chinese migrants who were instrumental to the building of this country, and the disgraceful way in which those contributions were minimized and people systematically brutalized, we must add the historical fact of the ‘head tax’ to the narrative of Canada’s supposedly welcoming and tolerant history.
Mr. Quan fought for years, and through three prime ministers, for a formal apology. He did not do this out of zeal for a sweet government handout (which, eventually, he got) – he did it because there is a value in an apology. He did it because there is something to be said for recognizing when we, as a society, have done wrong. He did it because the ‘head tax’ did not just take his money, it took his dignity:
When the federal government in 2006 issued an official apology and tax redress cheques of $20,000 to survivors and spouses, Quan was among the first to receive his. “The next day, I went down to visit him and he had this incredibly big smile on his face,” Tan said. “He came up to me and he said, ‘Sid, I’m not a chink any more. I get my money back.’ ”
It is quite easy (and popular) to say “why can’t (group) just get over it?” If you can survive wading into the chest-high privilege that such statement is dripping with, there is perhaps the tiniest kernel of a valid question: what is the value in holding on to historical wrongs instead of working to improve the future? Of course my pat answer is that we ought not make our way into the future without a firm grasp of our past. Beyond that though, the question is simply a kind of mass-scale type of gaslighting, in which wronged groups are made to feel as though they are crazy for demanding justice from the majority. “Letting things go” is a behaviour that does nothing more than maintain the status quo, essentially ensuring that no lessons are learned and, thus, no improvements made.
Mr. Quan’s passing should be noted not so much for the fact of his death, but for the remarkable work of his life. As Canada “debates” the passage of a new immigration bill (put in quotes because the Republican North government is more or less completely uninterested in listening to any voice that isn’t their own), the grievous errors that we’ve committed in the past must not be forgotten or ignored. We are presented with an opportunity to put into practice the lessons we have learned from sober examination of our history, and to not waste the efforts of this brave Canadian.
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