Sorry doesn't change the facts

It is too easy to apologize for history. Sometimes it is necessary. But "sorry" doesn't make the past go away or let us substitute our imaginings for fact. The first problem with historical apologies is that they are about what someone else did. Pride can easily masquerade as humility when we make an elaborate show of repenting other people's sins. Tony Blair was singularly fond of smarmy "apologies" whose main purpose seemed to be not to fix historical wrongs but to admire himself in Clio's mirror for being so much better than people in the dark pre-New-Labour days. It is a dubious proposition and in any case was not for him to say. A second, related hazard is that such apologies are generally driven by the exigencies of the present, which creates a strong temptation to twist the past for political reasons.

These hazards cannot be avoided by refusing to make such apologies. Corporate entities inherit the glories and disgraces of their past. And if amends have not been made for the latter, it is a moral duty of those now in office to state that they were wrong, express regret and contrition on behalf of the organization and try to set things right insofar as possible.

So, did the Canadian government have something to apologize for concerning residential schools and, if so, what was it?

The answers are "Uncontrovertibly yes" and "Not what many people think." The residential schools policy was very wrong because the state forcibly took children from their families to subject them to highly intrusive indoctrination. An additional evil was that, having declared their own parents unfit to raise them, the state put far too many children in the claws of emotional, physical and sexual abusers.

On a third, very important point no apology was due. Whatever heartbreak and lingering harm the residential schools caused, they were not responsible for the catastrophic collision between traditional aboriginal culture and European modernity. Nor was the Canadian government as a whole. As individuals we may, and should, feel grief at the colossal disruption caused by the clash of civilizations over the past 500 years. But we should be both clear and honest about what happened and why.

By 1500, Europeans had developed not merely astounding military prowess but a culture of individualism, free inquiry and free action that sustained that military prowess. And the terrible paradox that has convulsed the globe since the time of Columbus is that people from China to Chile found that they must match the military power of the West to resist its cultural and political intrusion, but could not match its military power without adopting much of its culture and political institutions. So even if they won, they lost. No way has been found to cut this Gordian knot, and the most aggressive attempts, like Marxism, only turned trouble into catastrophe.

If residential schools had not sought, among other things, to teach aboriginal children English, does anyone suppose they would have been able to avoid modernity or cope with it better? It doesn't excuse the policy, but it does illustrate the limits of its responsibility for the present.

It is also important to reject the notion that the tragedy that resulted from the collision of cultures, including European diseases decimating the Americas, was a simple case of the serpent invading Eden. Traditional cultures had strengths but also weaknesses. None were characterised exclusively by peace, plenty, or sublime moral wisdom. And institutions from Parliament to hospitals to newspapers are, uniquely, products of European civilization for which no apology is due.

Like most non-aboriginal Canadians I am acutely aware of the horrific conditions on many reserves and bitterly regret the legacy of bad government policy and racist attitudes. But I utterly reject any suggestion that Canadian aboriginals were dwelling in Eden until the Europeans came and expelled them. Especially if, as too often, it is linked to a project that is not merely unreasonable but impossible: that through some policy action by the Canadian government the past shall be not just acknowledged but undone and in consequence aboriginals, untainted by everyone else's original sin, shall finally manage to leave the modern world for this imaginary paradise.

Apologies cannot undo the past. Sometimes they are necessary anyway, and this one was. But they are too easy to give and too easy to rely on. It is the future, not the past, that we can try to improve. Let us not instead oblige posterity to apologize because we, in our day, continued to base aboriginal policy on invidious racial distinctions driven by historical fantasies.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]