The past couple of weeks have been filled with government apologies for historical wrongs. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Air India, and Bloody Sunday Inquiry have all been prominent in the news recently.
What significance do public apologies for historic wrongs have? Government apologies have the potential to remind the general public of events long past. It is unlikely that people directly impacted by Bloody Sunday or the residential school system are going to forget the horror of these events. However, people not alive during these events or who have not felt the repercussion of them can easily forget the past. Public apologies, inquires, and general discussion about past wrongs bring events back into public view and help raise awareness regarding atrocities and past mistakes. For years, the issue of residential schools was glossed over in public schools. In recent years a movement towards acknowledgment of past wrongs has contributed to an increase in educating Canadians at large about this moment in our past.
However, apologies are often about controlling the collective memory of a particular event. Apologies for historic wrongs are often politically motivated and can be seen as a step towards reconciliation. Apologies add another dimension to the history of a particular events. It allows the government to be seen as taking proactive action against the past.
Is an apology sufficient when an entire community was wronged? Of course not. Is it a step in the right direction to addressing the problem? Perhaps. They can be a starting point for reconciliation but apologies need to be accompanied by actual action.
For another look at government sponsored apologies see Laura Madokoro’s post “Giving Voice To History” on activehistory.ca