Sorry has been the hardest word for governments

While governments still harbour some fears that apologies can lead to financial liability, many have begun to say sorry more often - and Canada's government isn't finished yet.

Official apologies were made for Japanese internment, residential schools, but lawyers still fear liability

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau makes a formal apology to individuals harmed by federal legislation, policies, and practices that led to the oppression of and discrimination against LGBT people in Canada, in the House of Commons in Ottawa, on Tuesday. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Canada's next official apology is already in the works.

The country, through its prime minister, is expected to express contrition for the historic cruelty of turning away the St. Louis, a ship carrying Jewish refugees fleeing Nazism in 1939.

The passengers had already been refused entry by Cuban and U.S. authorities. Rejected and dejected, they would return to a Europe on the brink of war. Many would die in Nazi concentration camps.

A statement of regret, 80 years after the fact, will fit firmly into the Canadian government's record of official apology.

Until Tuesday's LGBTQ2 apology — and leaving aside apologies to individuals such as Maher Arar — Canada had atoned for three types of wrongs: those related to the Indian Residential School system, wrongs related to immigration, such as the Chinese head tax or the Komagata Maru incident, and wrongs it perpetrated during the two world wars, such as the internment of Japanese-Canadians and the executions of Canadian soldiers during the First World War.

The St. Louis incident checks two of those three boxes.

Some in the Jewish community have fought for years to make the government acknowledge that its decision was heartless and tainted by anti-Semitism.

Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis attempt to communicate with friends and relatives in Cuba, June 3, 1939. The ship's passengers were later refused entry to Canada and many died in the Holocaust. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum/National Archives and Records)

Others are less keen. Sally Zerker, whose Polish-Jewish family members on the St. Louis were turned away, wrote in Canadian Jewish News that an apology now would be "nothing but a shallow, empty, meaningless act."

"It will not bring back my relatives, or offer me any solace. Instead, it will whitewash a government that did nothing to help the Jews who were fleeing the Nazis and ignored the type of anti-Semitism that was endemic in Canada until the 1970s."

But Zerker's reaction is not typical. Though panned by some critics as "virtue-signalling" and gesture politics, apologies often mean a lot to the people to whom they're directed.

At least two other Canadian historical wrongs have already received tokens of official recognition, but no formal federal apology: the internment of Ukrainians during the First World War, and the racist discrimination endured by the black Nova Scotian community of Africville.


Both could be on the path that leads to a formal apology.

Apologies, left and right


It was Conservative Brian Mulroney who broke the ice in 1988, when he apologized for the internment of Japanese-Canadians (Ronald Reagan the same year signed a similar apology to Japanese-Americans who were interned). Stephen Harper followed suit in 2006 with an apology for the head tax that unfairly penalized Chinese immigrants from 1885 to 1923.

Harper also made what is probably Canada's biggest apology to date for the residential school system. Justin Trudeau's apology last week extended that apology to residential school survivors in Newfoundland and Labrador who had been excluded.

Then prime minister Stephen Harper shakes hands with Indigenous leaders on June 11, 2008, the day he formally apologized on behalf of the Canadian government for the residential school system. The exclusion of schools in Newfoundland and Labrador led to another apology by Justin Trudeau last week. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Trudeau's own father was no fan of saying sorry. When Mulroney first proposed an apology for Japanese-Canadians in 1984, Trudeau rebuffed him.

"I do not think it is the purpose of a government to right the past," Pierre Trudeau said. "It is our purpose to be just in our time."

"My father might have a different perspective on it than I do," Justin Trudeau said Monday, as he prepared to apologize for the persecution of LGBT Canadians.

"He came at it as an academic, as a constitutionalist. I come at it as a teacher, as someone who's worked a lot in communities."


Lawyers hate apologies

Trudeau could also have said his father came at it as a lawyer, which he was.

Lawyers routinely tell their clients that apologies can be construed as admissions of guilt or liability — and can carry a price tag.

Concerns about reparations long delayed an official U.S. government apology for slavery.

U.S. President Bill Clinton condemned his country's record on a visit to Senegal in 1998, but added the caveat: "We cannot push time backward through the door of no return. We have lived our history."

Ten years would pass before the U.S. Congress would pass a resolution apologizing for more than 200 years of slavery and segregation of African-Americans.

But the Senate's beautifully worded apology to African-Americans ends with this rather jarring clause: "Disclaimer: Nothing in this resolution  a) authorizes or supports any claim against the United States; or b) serves as a settlement of any claim against the United States."


Limited liability


Slavery began during colonial times, but it persisted long after the U.S. Declaration of Independence, as the Congressional apology acknowledged.

Should Canada's responsibility for historic wrongs extend to pre-Confederation times?


Stephen Harper thought not, which is why he excluded Newfoundland and Labrador from his residential school apology in 2008. Trudeau has decided that the province's pre-Confederation history (N.L. joined in 1949) was Canada's history. And it's a history with its own set of wrongs.

Relations between Newfoundland's original inhabitants, the Beothuks, and its settlers were so bad that encounters between the two usually left one side dead. The last confirmed member of the Beothuk people died in 1829.

And the same British Crown that pacified Quebec by extending legal tolerance and equality to its Catholic majority showed a much harsher face in its Newfoundland colony. There, it imposed the same code of discrimination and persecution it operated in Ireland: the Penal Laws.

The policies enacted in a forlorn bid to prevent Irish people from settling Newfoundland included banning the Roman Catholic religion, hunting priests and nuns, burning homes and outbuildings and refusing the right of burial.

Official government correspondence of the era typically refers to the island's Irish people as "idle, disorderly, useless men and women" and "disaffected, disloyal, disorderly, enured to drunkenness, debauchery, vices and felonies of all kinds."

Irish people lived under absurd restrictions — for example, no two "Papist" men could spend the winter under the same roof unless they were servants of a Protestant master — and any infraction was an excuse for exile.


Sins of the Crown

Acadian family members place flowers at the base of a monument honouring the memory of Acadians who were deported 250 years ago, on the waterfront in Halifax in 2005. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

At least one of Canada's pre-Confederation wrongs has already been addressed in a formal apology — from the Queen.

The expulsion of the Acadians in 1755 from what is now the Maritimes and Quebec was a historic transgression whose consequences are still felt by the exiles' descendants (some of whom live in Louisiana rather than Nova Scotia, for one thing).

Queen Elizabeth apologized to the Acadians in 2003, signing a royal "Proclamation Designating 28 July of Every Year as A Day of Commemoration of the Great Upheaval."

But she was careful to add a rider:

"Our present proclamation does not, under any circumstances, constitute a recognition of legal or financial responsibility by the Crown."





Evan Dyer

Senior Reporter

Evan Dyer has been a journalist with CBC for 25 years, after an early career as a freelancer in Argentina. He works in the Parliamentary Bureau and can be reached at evan.dyer@cbc.ca.