There's a good reason why our governments often seem to be in the apology business. Many acts committed in the not-so-distant past by our leaders and institutions were fundamentally wrong – not just wrong by the relative standards of enlightened modernity, but wrong according to an honest application of the higher values and idealized abstractions that many generations of Canadians have held dear.
When injustices were perpetrated in the name of justice, people were harmed and lives were ruined. Among those targeted for persecution – and in some cases, prosecution – were Canadians who were ostracized because of their sexuality. Sexual minorities were treated as deviants from the norm who warranted discriminatory treatment – up to and including imprisonment – simply because they were considered different at a time when difference was, ipso facto, dangerous and criminal.
The laws, customs and prejudices of a particular moment deemed this mistreatment acceptable and even beneficial. Now we know better. Progress happens, and the fixed positions of the past turn out to be the figments of a transient status quo. But it is hardly enough to congratulate ourselves for being enlightened if we don't recognize the obligations that wisdom imposes: to challenge and rectify past and present wrongs as best we can.
The Globe reported on Thursday that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will soon apologize to the many Canadians who were prosecuted, imprisoned, fired from jobs or otherwise persecuted because of their sexuality. The list ranges from those criminally charged prior to 1967, when justice minister Pierre Trudeau introduced legislation decriminalizing homosexual acts, to people expelled from the military, which until relatively recently did not allow homosexuals.
The past is a different place, and critics will say it is unfair to impose present-day values on the judgments of another time. Put another way, consider how the official acts and everyday assumptions of 2016 will be perceived 50 years from now – there's no question that something we accept unthinkingly today will be rejected in the future as an obvious wrong.
But the greater unfairness is to look away from the past and pretend it is over and done with. We can't rewrite history. But we can draw a line that puts it behind us.