Barbed Wire

Righting Historical Wrongs

Written by Bohdan Kordan

Canadian Speeches: Issues of the Day
September 1993

Barbed Wire

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Internees at Fort Henry, near Kingston, Ontario, 1915 (Photo courtesy of Louis S. Byrdy)

On September 22, 1988, the Rt. Hon. Brian Mulroney, prime minister of Canada, rose in the House of Commons to issue an apology to Canadians of Japanese origin for the wrongful internment of their community during the Second World War. The prime minister stated in part on that occasion that Canadians could not change history but as a nation must have the courage to face the past. He spoke in imperatives, declaring an apology was necessary "To put things right with the surviving members - with their children, and ours so that they can walk together in this country, burdened by neither the wrongs nor the grievances of previous generations."

These are noble and generous words of one who would see a future for Canada where peoples would come together in harmony, trust, and with an abiding respect for each other, their histories and cultures. More to the point, however, the prime minister acknowledged that the nation's ability to face the challenges of tomorrow and the moral choices we as a people make today will in great measure depend on our preparedness to confront and redress the mistakes of the past.

In these few well chosen words, the prime minister set before the nation the practical importance of passing moral judgement on past injustices: moral judgments have implications for actions, and, therefore, on the current and future conduct of human affairs.

The utility in recognizing a historical wrong is in the meaning it shares with other potentially unjust events. That we condemn a historical injustice is to express a value which conditions our response to choices that we currently face. It also reinforces a tradition which allows us to avoid actions that would otherwise imperil our sense of identity and moral worth. We as a nation must pass moral judgement on historical injustices because it is in this particular way of understanding the past that we become open to it and accept those very ideas and values we as a democratic people profess and use in shaping the justness of our own actions.

But there are other imperatives that demand from us that we judge historical wrongs. Historical references enable us to speak intelligently about circumstances which may allow for real moral danger to manifest itself and to recognize when the lives and dignity of a people are thus threatened. The consequences of actions are not always clear until crime is committed. The lessons of history as a result have a real place in the current political dialogue in determining which actions are appropriate and what principles must be upheld.

It is insufficient to claim that discussing past wrongs is pointless. That we cannot change history is self-evident and unproductive. Moreover, it is not the issue. The issue is to confront history and learn from it. The importance of history is that it tells us something about who we are and what we might become. In this sense, the tragedy for those who would dismiss the lessons of history is not that the contempt they eschew is somehow legitimized - history neither seeks, nor requires the approval or blandishments of individuals. Rather it is the loss of both an opportunity to discover ourselves and a means by which we may avoid repeating those mistakes that would make of us something other than what we might become.

This is not to suggest that justice is prescriptive and the lessons of history lead inevitably to a higher and nobler consciousness. Far from it. The value of historical assessment is simply that it alerts those faced with moral choices to the myriad of possibilities that history presents and that actions and decisions must be weighed carefully.

This raises an important point. Our need to remember is intimately bound with the contingency inherent in history. History is comprised of chance events that from the perspective of probability are elusive and indeterminable. History is complex, layered, and anarchic and only a complete recollection of things past can assist our understanding of it. Once a historical event is forgotten or concealed, damage is done to the memory of the past.

The significance of this lies in that memory is not the residue of life but the framework for our own identity as a nation, a community, and, ultimately, we as individuals. Historical memory helps to sustain communities and individuals by giving meaning to their existence in history. The historical memory of a community is its identity. And if for reasons of neglect, ignorance or malice a community's history is trivialized or dismissed, this constitutes an assault on the identity of those who would comprise it.

Individuals who seek the redress of historical wrongs do so not for venal reasons or to teach the perpetrators and their heirs a lesson. They look to justice because they must contend with the contingency in history to preserve their identity. Indeed, any attempt to alter or deny history by others takes away from the meaning of the experience which shapes identity, and, tragically, in this case, places the individual, as the object of historical injustice, in the role of subject. As the subject in history, questions are raised about self-worth and the worth of the community to which the individual belongs: that somehow the individual invited the disaster or that it was something about the community which allowed disaster to be visited upon it. This situation proves fortuitous for those who, in the absence of living memory, would be free to create a more palatable history.

Only historical remembrance and a complete account of the past allows us to compare and distinguish between what has happened from that which is offered in its place. It is through living memory alone that communities and individuals are able to maintain their cultural and moral worth in a world of conjecture and recrimination while dispelling arguments which would rely on historical and moral relativism to lessen the meaning of historical injustice.

It is true that no amount of compensation can serve as adequate restitution for a historical injustice, especially one that has deprived individuals of their basic human and civil rights. It is for this reason that redress can only but be symbolic. But in its symbolism - to use the prime minister's remarks in his address to the House of Commons - redress must go beyond "laws and words." It must demonstrate society's undertaking to acknowledge that an injustice has been committed. It must preserve the integrity and dignity of a people's identity. And, finally, it must give recognition to the fact that it was failed government which acted against its own people; to emphasize that governments have a moral and political responsibility, then as now, to ensure such events do not occur.

The settlement reached between the Government of Canada and the Japanese Canadian community was successfully concluded because the apology was unequivocal and the offer symbolically met the criteria of responsibility. The offer was not taken or meant to be an act of contrition or atonement because neither was being sought. The spiritual crisis and the material losses suffered by Japanese Canadians is part of history and could never be fully compensated or recovered. What was being sought was a sincere expression of good faith: the recognition that an injustice had been committed; the symbolic redress of a wrong so that the nation could move forward; and the guarantee of legal safe-guards that would ensure these events would never be repeated.

Today, the Government of Canada and the people of Canada are faced once again with the challenge of learning from history. During World War I, Canada conducted its first national internment operations against an ethnic underclass on the pretext of national security. It was a policy choice. However, it was the wrong moral choice. This judgement is not a matter of historical hindsight. Sir Wilfrid Laurier, for one, broke at the time with the Union government because he recognized the character of the actions of that government to be fundamentally unjust.

When the Government of Canada under the War Measures Act designated some 80,000 Ukrainian Canadians as "enemy aliens" on the basis of their status as former subjects of states then at war with Canada and suspended their right to naturalization, it did so in violation of international legal custom. That the government of Canada interned some 5,000 "enemy alien" Ukrainian Canadians, many of whom were detained for economic reasons, and treated them once in detention as "prisoners of war," it did so by obviating its international legal commitments. When the same "prisoners of war" were subject to unnecessarily harsh and brutal treatment and whose labors were crudely used to profit agencies of the government, notably the ministry tasked with the development of the Dominion's national parks, the Government of Canada failed to observe the basics of international humanitarian law.

This is all part of the historical record of failure. Whether Canadians, today, are prepared to face this past is uncertain. It is especially uncertain when a minister of the Crown agrees with the recommendations of his advisory body which, in considering a proposal to acknowledge internment as part of Parks Canada's interpretive program, dismisses the event as being without historical significance. It is further disturbing that the minister would approve a measure which violates the letter and spirit of the 1930 National Parks Act, legislation which instructs the ministry responsible that Canada's national parks are for the benefit and education of all Canadians. What more purposeful benefit and what better way to educate Canadians of their civic responsibility than to alert those who would otherwise travel untroubled on the roads of Canada's national parks where once an unspeakable crime was committed.

It is unclear whether the government of the day will be able to overcome the miasma and confusion surrounding the issue of acknowledgement and redress. It is not promising when a motion before the House, unanimously approved by all parties, calling for genuine acknowledgement and negotiations, is consciously and unceremoniously ignored. That it is ignored is unsurprising when the appeals of those who would argue for respectful recognition of their identity and for symbolic justice to be done to the memory of the innocents are contemptuously dismissed by a government member as "voices from the Dark Ages." It is, finally, unclear to what degree the government is committed to the process of acknowledgement and redress when officials refuse to entertain even the possibility that the funds of internees entrusted to its keep and never returned should now be withheld.

The imperatives that demanded we learn from the Japanese Canadian experience are no less pressing in this case. And the imperatives which forced the government of the day to examine its obligations and responsibility to the present and the future are no less compelling. The liberal democratic precepts which give design to the Canadian polity underscore the importance that rule of law and human and civil rights have for the political culture of the nation. The experience of Canada's first national internment operations and the events surrounding the experience serves as another reminder of the fragile nature upon which the political foundations of this country rests. History provides the lessons by which the mistakes of the past would less likely be repeated. The importance of this should not be lost on those who would lead the country and will face, as did their predecessors, difficult moral and political choices.

A major challenge is presented by the issue of acknowledgement and redress. The real significance of the challenge lies not in its implications for the future of the community but in the larger meaning of how the Canadian nation and its government are prepared to treat the issue. What has been done is done. The experience of internment has long since been integrated in the collective memory and identity of the community. That the experience may be dismissed or trivialized is unfortunate and serves only to burden a community unnecessarily. Nothing however, will detract from the essential meaning of that experience.

And yet within this tragedy rests an opportunity. It will be a true measure of the political maturity of the Canadian people and an uncompromising expression of solidarity with the future if they are able to overcome their prejudices and fears on the road to discovering what they might yet become. In this, Ukrainian Canadians have a shared responsibility. Their special task is to assist the Canadian nation towards realizing that end.

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Copyright © 1994 Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association

Copyright © 1994 Lubomyr Luciuk

We acknowledge the help in the preparation of this document by Amanda Anderson

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Originally Composed: Wednesday December 4th 1996.
Date last modified: Thursday October 30th 1997.