Skip to main content
Complete Olympic Games coverage at your fingertips
Your inside track on the Olympic Games
Enjoy unlimited digital access
$1.99
per week for 24 weeks
Complete Olympic Games coverage at your fingertips
Your inside track onthe Olympics Games
$1.99
per week
for 24 weeks
// //

In the last Parliament, with the Liberals in office, the Conservative Party supported the government's program to commemorate but neither apologize nor pay money for victims of long-ago discrimination.

Come the election campaign, however, Conservative candidates in British Columbia's Lower Mainland began pressing leader Stephen Harper for some politically alluring promises.

There, and in other urban areas with Chinese-Canadian communities, groups demanded more than the Liberal policies of commemoration. They wanted a formal apology and compensation for those who had paid a head tax to enter Canada between 1885 and 1923.

Story continues below advertisement

They were well-organized, had ready access to the media, and had already convinced the NDP. Sniffing votes, Mr. Harper relented. The Conservative position changed. Mr. Harper suddenly embraced the apology and payments, both of which he delivered on Parliament Hill yesterday in the latest instalment of victim politics, Canadian-style.

When victim politics began, under Brian Mulroney, Canadians were assured that the apology and payments made to Japanese Canadians interned during the Second World War would be the end of it.

Pierre Trudeau, faced with similar demands, had refused to play victim politics on the grounds that it would never end. He was busy trying to build a sense of Canadian unity rather than dwell on past injustices.

Study the past, Mr. Trudeau argued, but in a country as diverse as Canada, with so many entrenched beliefs of particularistic grievances, no government should be apologizing, because the apologies would never stop. We can only be just in our time, Mr. Trudeau declared.

How right he was. Once started, the victim industry gained new adherents. Groups never stopped pressing governments for formal recognition of past wrongs. Their demands varied. Some wanted just formal recognition; others an official apology. Some wanted money for individuals or their descendants; others preferred funds for institutes, plaques and educational programs.

What each sought was an official legitimacy for their historic grievance. None, of course, looked beyond their own group. None worried about precedent. They focused understandably and insistently only on their own cause.

Jean Chrétien adopted the Trudeau analysis and rebuffed the interest groups' demands. But Paul Martin opened wide the Pandora's box, creating a grievance fund and inviting all groups that felt their ancestors had been wronged to apply for money.

Story continues below advertisement

It was an appalling decision for any national government, driven by the Martinites' inability to say no to any group. It produced entirely predictable results.

A lineup of the aggrieved quickly formed. With an election looming, the Martinites paid money to Ukrainian-Canadian, Italian-Canadian and Chinese-Canadian projects to commemorate wrongs done to their ancestors. An even longer list of the aggrieved awaited, and still awaits, decisions.

The trouble was that a plethora of organizations exists within the Chinese-Canadian community, and some groups objected to the limits imposed by the Martinites (and supported by the Conservatives). There would be recognition and money for collective projects of remembrance, but no formal apology or direct cash payments. Not good enough, they insisted.

The Italian-Canadian and Ukrainian-Canadian groups had settled for less, and the Liberals presumed (wrongly) that these gestures would suffice for Chinese Canadians. The groups within that community that bid up the ante never stopped working, and finally got the Conservatives to change their minds. It didn't do the party any good in terms of winning ridings last time, but it might pay future dividends.

The head-tax apology and payment, together with the train ride of Chinese Canadians to Ottawa, have produced huge and favourable coverage in the Chinese-language media -- which is, of course, what the Harper government craved.

The government, after all, has made it an abiding objective to play ethnic politics just as the other parties do. They are recognizing the Armenian "genocide" of the First World War, keeping the Liberals' grievance fund going and dipping into it for the Chinese Canadians, setting up an inquiry into the 1985 Air-India bombing, cutting the immigration processing fee, sending the Prime Minister to event after event in multicultural communities, and having him give speeches praising the country's diversity.

Story continues below advertisement

There was a time when Conservatives largely left ethnic politics to the Liberals. Now, they are trumping the Liberals at their own game. There will be more grievance-inspired groups to come.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies