No need to apologize
Obsessing over alleged official racism in the past plays into the hands of those who would exploit ethnic politics and harms Canada's reputation as a tolerant country
The Ottawa Citizen
Thursday, August 14, 2008
On August 3, Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized before a meeting of 8,000 members of the Sikh community in Surrey, B.C., for the refusal by the Canadian authorities to let most of the passengers disembark from the Komagata Maru when it arrived at Vancouver in 1914.
The complaints about the Komagata Maru incident are based on the argument that several hundred people from India, most of whom were Sikhs, were unjustly prevented from entering Canada. There is no dispute in this regard over the fact that measures were then in place to make it difficult or expensive for most people from India, China and Japan to come to Canada. Whether or not this was essentially an act of racism on the part of Canadians — as is alleged, however, is another matter.
While it is true that many British Columbians felt that their territory should be populated mainly by whites, what is usually overlooked when discussing the Komagata Maru incident as well as Chinese head tax is the fact that the main reason for opposition to large-scale immigration from these countries was economic in nature; workers in B.C. feared that they would be driven out of the labour force by the influx of substantial numbers of those from poorer countries who were prepared to work for a fraction of the going wage.
That the head tax was not levied on merchants or students from China underlines the fact that its purpose was essentially economic rather than racist in nature.
The question of whether the Canadian government should apologize for past injustices or alleged injustices committed against minorities has long been contentious. Former prime minister Pierre Trudeau took a firm stand on the issue when he stated that today's society could not be held responsible for all of the misdeeds of the past — otherwise the list of demands would be endless.
The position adopted by Mr. Trudeau began to erode, however, during the campaign prior to the 2006 federal election when an increasingly desperate Liberal party sought to shore up its support in the Chinese community by promising to atone for the imposition of the head tax more than a century earlier. Not to be outdone, the Conservatives then made similar commitments. As Mr. Trudeau anticipated, the queue of those seeking redress of one kind or another has now become rather long.
In the case of immigrant communities, one of the reasons why Canadians are so frequently reminded about their sins of the past may well be the very fact that we are among the most liberal and inclusive societies in the world and were among the first to put in place truly colour-blind immigration policies.
While there is good reason to be proud of these accomplishments, there are some who may regard such progressive attitudes as something to be exploited, and who regard us as sensitive souls susceptible to arguments that we either are or have in the past been racist in our treatment of minorities. For many Canadians, expressing guilt and making amends for the sins of their forebears appears to be a key component of their national identity.
In the event, Stephen Harper's apology was not entirely successful. Following his address, a vote taken among those who listened to his speech indicated that most were not satisfied with his apology. The suggestion was also made at the meeting that Sikhs in Canada were being treated as second-class citizens. Claiming one is being victimized can indeed be an effective way of extracting concessions.
This particular claim is of doubtful validity when one considers that, even though they constitute less than one half of one per cent of the world's population, the number of Sikhs arriving here ranks them among the largest of any ethnic group. They also enjoy a very impressive track record in terms of exerting political influence in Canada.
Sikhs in Canada have, for example, shown notable success in areas such as mass recruitment of new members of political parties to ensure their interests are reflected in the selection of candidates at the constituency level in federal election nominations and in the choice of delegates for party leadership conventions.
At the level of government program delivery, the decision by Ottawa a few years ago to open a visa office in Chandigarh rather than in some other location in India was in all likelihood taken in order to cater to the wishes of members of the Sikh community seeking to make it easier to sponsor their relatives to come to Canada. An objective assessment of the interests of Canadians in general would almost certainly have resulted in the new office being located elsewhere in India.
A more recent example of the political clout of members of the community can be seen in the efforts by Canadian authorities to deport failed refugee claimant, Laibar Singh. Despite attempts dating back to last year by the Canada Border Services Agency to remove him, his departure from Canada has been blocked by his supporters in the community and he continues to remain illegally on our soil. Some of them have boasted that, if they decide he should stay here, he will do so regardless of what has been decided under Canadian law. Thus far they have been able to make good on this promise.
The type of grievance politics exemplified by demands for apologies over the Komagata Maru incident not only involves a very one-sided interpretation of the events that transpired — thus casting Canada in a negative and undeserved light — it is also not in the long-term interests of immigrants themselves to be constantly told of alleged misdeeds that took place a century ago.
When we continue to obsess over what a racist country Canada has been in the past (and, by implication, still is to a considerable degree) we send a message to newcomers that the failures and disappointments they encounter here may be largely the fault of a prejudiced and discriminatory Canadian society. This is no way to build a strong and united Canada.
Martin Collacott is a former Canadian ambassador in Asia and the Middle East.
He lives in Vancouver.