An Apology No Canadian Prime Minister Should Have to Make

May 25, 2020 Updated: May 26, 2020


Mr. Speaker, it is my painful duty to rise here today to apologize for the Canadian government’s failure to stand with the people of Hong Kong in their hour of need.

This chamber has seen many apologies for historical wrongs. Some say too many. Years ago we had a prime minister who rejected the concept of such apologies entirely, saying, “I do not think the purpose of a government is to right the past. It cannot rewrite history. It is our purpose to be just in our time.”

He did not deny that the matter under discussion, the internment of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War, had been wrong, or that lessons could and should be learned from it. But he questioned the value of an apology especially for the behaviour of others. As novelist and historian George Macdonald Fraser put it acerbically when British Prime Minister Tony Blair apologized for the Irish Potato Famine: “I didn’t know he had caused it.”

This clever remark does not exhaust the issue. There is a legal and even moral continuity in governments that makes it appropriate to apologize for their actions even when the individuals in question have gone on to their reward or punishment. We do so for the sake of honesty and honour, principle and prudence.

Thus, the man who as opposition leader urged Pierre Trudeau to apologize for Canada’s Japanese internment later became prime minister and did so himself. And perhaps unexpectedly, U.S. President Ronald Reagan made a similar apology for America’s similar internment.

One reason for acknowledging past wrongdoing is not instrumental. If we believe the truth shall make us free, then we must acknowledge the truth just because it is the truth. When a Canadian prime minister apologized for turning away Jewish refugees from Hitler, one relative of Holocaust victims said, “It will not bring back my relatives, or offer me any solace. Instead, it will whitewash a government that did nothing to help the Jews who were fleeing the Nazis and ignored the type of anti-Semitism that was endemic in Canada until the 1970s.” But to say something was wrong is not a whitewash. And nothing can bring back her relatives. All we can do is say the Holocaust was wrong and we acted to stop it too late.

The other reason for making apologies is instrumental. We learn from our errors because we face them. When the same prime minister apologized for Canada’s turning away of the Komagata Maru, a commentator rejected it because “we potentially lose the ability to make the point that the Komagata Maru continues to be as relevant today as it was in 1914.” But this argument is feeble. To deny that it was wrong will not make it easier to draw whatever lessons need to be drawn today. Quite the reverse.

These considerations also do not exhaust the issue. Historical apologies can become facile or worse. They can drift dangerously from acknowledging a failure to live up to our ideals into a repudiation of those ideals, a denunciation of our own civilization. We might apologize for the Crusades, or the “discovery of the New World,” and expect nothing in return. Yet where are the apologies for failing to stand up to Hitler? Or Stalin? Or Pol Pot?

If historical apologies become sanctimonious, lachrymose, and mechanical, they may become a dangerous source of pride, not humility. We had another prime minister far too ready to apologize for the behaviour of others without making allowance either for circumstance or human frailty. Except his own. But a smug assumption that nothing of the sort could possibly have happened had I been there means that, instead of learning from history, we condemn ourselves to repeat it.

Which we did in 2020. Which is why I must now apologize for Canada’s blindness to the evils of communism in general and the suppression of freedom in Hong Kong in particular. Some saw it coming as early as 1997. But when the British agreed to terminate the 99-year lease, apologizing for colonialism seemed more important than defending freedom. And then a decent interval elapsed and when the crisis came, we had other things on our minds.

In 2020, taking advantage of a pandemic they had done much to worsen, the Chinese communists struck at the freedoms of Hong Kong that they had promised to respect. And our government said little and did nothing.

One can plead various extenuating circumstances. There was not much we could do. We had yet again unilaterally disarmed militarily and morally. China was a great power and we were not. We had trade interests. They were holding our citizens hostage. It was a slow, relentless process and the bad guys were bound to win eventually. But to allow such considerations to dictate our conduct was, at bottom, not prudence but cowardice.

As in the 1930s, the predominant failure was not of observation or intellect but of nerve. We knew, and pretended we did not.

For that I apologize. I apologize because it was wrong then. I apologize because the temptation still exists and is still wrong. I apologize because it helped condemn people to slavery. And I apologize because it encouraged aggression.

As in the 1930s, so in the early 21st century successful small aggressions begot bigger ones. We did not stand up to Japan when it struck Manchuria, Mussolini when he invaded Ethiopia, or Hitler when he assailed Czechoslovakia. Instead, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain lethally dismissed the latter as a “quarrel in a far away country, between people of whom we know nothing.” And so we had to fight when Hitler and Stalin invaded Poland.

Hong Kong and China are far away even in our globalized world. But it’s not true that we knew nothing of them or of the quarrel. Many Canadians have family or business ties with both. And if we knew not the quarrel between communism and freedom, it is because we chose not to know.

Hindsight lets us see the precise path from the remilitarization of the Rhineland to war in September 1939. But the general progression was predictable, and we pretended it was not. Just as, when we did not stand with Hong Kong, we should have foreseen the consequences for Taiwan and beyond.

For that I am profoundly sorry. Not because it could not have happened if I had been there, but because it could. We are all prone to error and weakness, and we must all learn to stand courageously for truth.

Instead, in 2020 we failed the people of Hong Kong, we failed the world, and we failed ourselves.

I am sorry.

John Robson is a documentary filmmaker, National Post columnist, contributing editor to the Dorchester Review, and executive director of the Climate Discussion Nexus. His most recent documentary is “The Environment: A True Story.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.