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William Thorsell served as editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail from 1989 to 1999.

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Apology is a tricky thing for us humans: wounds abound. It presumes a meaningful offence, but: When is it necessary? To whom is it meaningful? Where does it end?

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John Ibbitson reports in The Globe and Mail that Canada's government will apologize to homosexuals in its employ whom it harassed, defamed and fired in the many years through the 1990s. He writes: "In choosing to act … Justin Trudeau has decided to complete a process begun by his father almost 50 years ago."

This refers to the decriminalization of homosexuality in 1969, a decision announced by prime minister Lester Pearson when Pierre Trudeau was Canada's justice minister. ("The state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation," said Mr. Trudeau – a quote lifted from a Globe editorial at the time.)

It was an excellent change of law, enacted soon after Mr. Trudeau became prime minister in April, 1968, on the very weekend that many U.S. cities burned up after Martin Luther King's assassination. In the political theatre of the time, Mr. Trudeau's rise to PM in the face of America's descent to anarchy helped to define this country (as circumstances do as well today).

On this file, Pierre Trudeau's legacy is clear, and all of us who emerged in time as gay had one great weight removed. We could now get into our own trouble legally (mostly).

An apology, however? An apology by the Government of Canada today for what the Government of Canada reflected in years past? Mr. Trudeau was not a fan of that paradigm.

In opposition in 1984, Brian Mulroney proposed that Canada apologize to Canadians of Japanese descent for the expropriation of their property without compensation, and their incarceration in Canadian camps during the Second World War. Mr. Trudeau responded: "I do not think it is the purpose of a government to right the past. I cannot rewrite history."

Trudeau the Elder acted bravely in 1969 about homosexuality in the Criminal Code (leaving some work undone), but saw no reason to accept responsibility for the acts of his predecessors in putting it there in the first place.

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How can you meaningfully apologize for something that someone else did wrong? Who would take that seriously?

There would be no apology to Canadians of Japanese descent – or homosexuals – from Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

Like father, unlike son and Pierre Trudeau's successors. Mr. Mulroney apologized to Canadians of Japanese descent in 1988, saying, as Mitch Miyagawa reported in The Walrus magazine, "Apologies are the only way we can cleanse the past."

Stephen Harper apologized to Canadian indigenous peoples for their awful assignment to residential schools, and to Canadians of Chinese descent for the imposition of an immigrant "head tax" a century ago.

Neither Mr. Mulroney's nor Mr. Harper's governments had any responsibility for these things: They were channelling history as agents of a bygone regime.

You might think that this remove would devalue their apologies (though apologies often come with monetary compensation). As Truth and Reconciliation commissions around the world testify, however, groups whose predecessors were abused, receive such apologies seriously. In many cases, the descendants of the abusers apologize to the descendants of the abused in a ritual of historical cleansing. It does have meaning. (See Germany and the Jews.)

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But "cleanse" is the wrong word, because apology does nothing to reverse the harm.

Apology is the wrong word too, because, to be true, apology can come only from the guilty party.

The appropriate word might be "recognition" or "acknowledgment" officially, of a historic wrong. That we can and should do – credibly. Apology in these cases can come only from the grave, and the grave is mute, and may well remain unapologetic.

For homosexuals today, we should eliminate bawdy house laws, inequities in age of consent, and expunge criminal records, to be sure. Deeds, not words.

Apologize? No: acknowledge. The elder Trudeau got this right.

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