Sunday, May 13, 2018
Another Canadian Apology
We joke about the Canadian propensity for saying we're sorry, and we know that our willingness to do so extends to the actions of governments. Ten years ago, during the Harper Conservative years, an apology was issued to Aboriginal peoples in this country. It was 30 years ago that Prime Minister Mulroney apologized for the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War.
Since the election of the Trudeau Liberals the government has apologized to gay men and women targeted for their sexuality, for Canada's 1914 decision to turn away the Komagata Maru ship that was carrying 376, mostly Sikh, migrants, and then exonerated six Tsilhqot'in chiefs who were hanged in 1864 for their role in the killing of six white colonists.
Prime Minister Trudeau will issue another apology, this time for an incident which took place nearly 80 years ago. In 1939, the MS St. Louis left Germany carrying 907 Jewish passengers fleeing persecution from the Nazi regime. The ship was turned away from Cuba and the United States before a group of Canadians tried to convince then-prime minister Mackenzie King's government to let it dock in Halifax. At least 250 of those passengers perished after the ship returned to Europe.
Some critics call these apologies "gesture politics," public mea culpas which don't mean a great deal. Yet they are often significant to those harmed and their descendants.
For me they are opportunities to learn, to understand more about the prejudices and injustices of the past and how they shape our present. They remind me that racism and homophobia have been part of the Canadian identity, as they still are.
I wonder how church leaders in the country responded at the time? We're told that a group of prominent Canadians led by historian and professor George Wrong telegraphed a petition to the Prime Minister, William Lyon MacKenzie King. The petitioners suggested that King “forthwith offer to the 907 homeless exiles on board the Hamburg American ship St. Louis sanctuary in Canada.” Sadly, King was not swayed by their entreaty.
As always, we hope and pray that an apology will be accompanied by a change of heart and concrete action. In our time when anti-Jewish incidents are on the rise we can remember the St. Louis and its passengers.