There comes a time when a habit hardens into a tic.
For Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his inclination to render formal apologies for Canada’s past transgressions, the moment came in November. That’s when, tears in his eyes, he issued what may have been the federal government’s first meta-apology.
To the former residential-school students of Newfoundland and Labrador, he said, in addition to being sorry, the government was “sorry for not apologizing sooner.”
To observe that the current PM had only been in office for two busy years by that point, and to wonder whether he wasn’t being a little hard on himself about the timing, would be to overlook that Mr. Trudeau was eight years old when Newfoundland and Labrador last had residential schools.
By the logic of formal government apologies, the Prime Minister’s absence of personal responsibility was a feature, not a bug. Governments rarely apologize so abjectly for their own mistakes. A historical “sorry” has the advantage of casting the glow of contrition on its speaker, with none of guilt’s harsher light.
That is surely part of the reason Mr. Trudeau has become so drawn to the practice. With his announcement last week that he will be delivering a formal apology for the fate of the MS St. Louis – a German ship carrying 900 Jewish refugees that was spurned in 1939 by several Western countries, Canada included, resulting in the death of hundreds of its passengers in the Holocaust – the PM will have delivered five apologies in under three years. This does not include his searing speech last year at the United Nations condemning Canada’s historic mistreatment of Indigenous people.
This spree of self-flagellation has gotten on some people’s nerves. The recurring charge is that Mr. Trudeau is engaging in a kind of moral preening – “virtue signaling,” in the parlance of critics-of-the-left – that substitutes meaningful action for pious hand-wringing.
What none of Mr. Trudeau’s critics are willing to claim, tellingly, is that his apologies are unwarranted. As the case of the St. Louis suggests, Canada has a lot to apologize for. Refusing asylum to desperate Jewish refugees, drumming queer people out of the public service, turning back a ship full of Sikh migrants, tricking rebel First Nations chiefs into giving themselves up only to be hanged for capital crimes, and tearing Indigenous families apart in the Maritimes – no one defends these things anymore.
How, then, does a modern person criticize the PM’s apology tour? No one took a better stab at it than his father. During a parliamentary debate in the 1980s about whether to apologize to Japanese-Canadians for their wartime internment, Pierre Trudeau rejected the idea of such gestures. “I do not think the purpose of a government is to right the past,” he said. “It is our purpose to be just in our time.”
Alas, this critique is unsatisfying. The elder Trudeau offers a false choice: In fact, a government can make amends for the past and also be just in its time. The current PM’s apology to the LGBTQ community came with a hefty compensation package. His refugee policy has been the opposite of the meanness and bigotry that led us to turn away the Komagata Maru and the St. Louis.
Trudeau père came closer to the mark when he invoked the slippery slope that governmental apologies can create. Indeed, if historically abused groups should get an apology, then why not women denied civil rights, or British Columbian Doukhobors or Asian-Canadians or Indigenous people prohibited from voting?
The question sounds rhetorical but isn’t. Apologies for all is the only humane answer. We should not recoil from the shame we feel at the thought of our often-unenlightened national past, but lean into it, so we don’t repeat it.
In the end, it may not be the fact of Mr. Trudeau’s apologies that grates, or their content, but the sheer frequency of them. Few chided Stephen Harper’s government for its three nostra culpas – for residential schools, the Chinese head tax and the forced relocation of Inuit communities – because they seemed to come at thoughtful intervals.
By contrast, most of us know from personal experience that someone who says “sorry” too often usually is not. That ought to go double on the national level, because a government’s apology is a solemn thing. Mr. Trudeau should space his out a bit, so that their spotlight falls more squarely on their subjects, and less on him.