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.
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.
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.
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.