Jordan Stanger-Ross is an associate professor of history and the director of Landscapes of Injustice at the University of Victoria. Matt James is an associate professor of political science at the University of Victoria.
Welcome back to the age of imperfect apologies. In the span of a week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized to the former students of five residential schools in Newfoundland and Labrador and to LGBTQ2 communities. In Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Mr. Trudeau acknowledged a failing of Stephen Harper's 2008 residential-schools apology, which, like the compensation package that preceded it, excluded students from Newfoundland schools.
While some former students praised Mr. Trudeau's sincerity and said it was "time to move on," Innu leaders boycotted the apology. Grand Chief Gregory Rich explained, "I'm not satisfied that Canada understands yet what it has done to Innu and what it is still doing."
Reflecting on the LGBTQ apology, historian of sexuality Steven Maynard expressed support, but warned that "historical records do not easily lend themselves" to expunging past criminal convictions as promised by the Prime Minister.
Recent history suggests that ongoing debate of both apologies is inevitable and perhaps necessary. A Prime Minister's contrition cannot and should not close the books on historical injustice.
Grave wrongs, the kind that merit official apologies, make hard history. In 1988, Canada offered its first political apology, taking responsibility for the uprooting, internment and dispossession of Japanese-Canadians. But details of that injustice continue to come to light.
We've only recently learned, for example, that the City of Vancouver played a lead role in the federal government's decision to dispossess the interned Japanese-Canadians of their property, and that, just after the war, federal lawyers admitted the illegality of the forced sale of Japanese-Canadian-owned fishing vessels.
Meanwhile, Canadians are slowly coming to grips with the significance of residential schooling. In 1998, Canada's Statement of Reconciliation acknowledged the rampant abuse that occurred at the schools. After almost two decades of further research and debate, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission officially declared that this abuse was part of a program of cultural genocide. Indeed, leading scholars now conclude that Canada's colonial policies constituted genocide – full stop.
Even flawed apologies allow some survivors of violence to find closure. Todd Ross, who had thoughts of suicide after his interrogation and discharge from the military due to his sexual orientation, said Mr. Trudeau's apology "was extremely meaningful" to him.
Such restitution to survivors of injustice should be cherished and honoured.
At the same time, we should expect apologies to be impermanent. Governments across the Western world have acknowledged past violations of human and civil rights. As apologies have spread, so, too, have critical opinions about them.
Most analysts agree that establishing a factual record is key to making a proper political apology. But governments face significant obstacles in doing so.
Massive state archives are daunting in their size and yet almost inevitably omit key information. Further, our interpretations of the past shift as new or previously ignored understandings come to light.
As Holocaust scholar Michael Rothberg puts it, "memory is a contemporary phenomenon, something that, while concerned with the past, happens in the present." Given these constraints, governments should support continuing critical engagement with past wrongs, rather than pursue final statements of closure.
For their part, apologies should spur further research and deeper consideration of wrongdoing. Japanese-Canadians have used the funds paid to them in the 1988 settlement to encourage further research and activism.
Ottawa's inadequate acknowledgment of the harms of residential schools in 1998 catalyzed Indigenous leaders who responded to Ottawa's hesitancy and denial with campaigns that pushed Canadians to better understand colonialism.
Residential-school survivors continue to advance Canadian understandings of injustice and to demand transformation in care policies and social welfare. Understanding our past and present is an continuing process. Apologies, even in their failings, can contribute.
We can expect to look back on both of Mr. Trudeau's recent apologies as imperfect – and we should embrace their impermanence. Of course, the imperfection of apology does not absolve government of the duty to consult seriously with survivors of injustice and to provide robust and satisfying accounts of its actions.
After his residential schools apology, Prime Minister Trudeau expressed willingness to work with Innu leaders to address their concerns. We hope he lives up to this commitment. But whatever further apologies may follow, we should embrace their impermanence, taking them as calls to action rather than acts of closure.