Why the Government Needs to Apologize

Originally Posted on Medium - Nov 15, 2017

Note: I have changed my fundamental stance on this since the time of writing given the current governments saturation of apologies

In September, Prime Minister Trudeau mentioned that the government may be working on an apology on behalf of Canada, for turning away the MS St. Louis in 1939. In short, this was a boat carrying Jews who were seeking refuge from the Nazis, that was denied entry into Canada. These Jews were returned to Europe and many of them perished in the Holocaust.


In her opinion piece, Sally Zerker, someone who lost family on that boat, explains that she does not want an apology “Because it will not bring back my relatives, or offer me any solace.” She continues “Instead, it will whitewash a government that did nothing to help the Jews who were fleeing the Nazis…”

I hold a great deal of empathy for Sally, having lost many of my own would-be extended family to the Holocaust. And it is true, issuing this apology will never bring back her family. In fact, it will never even come close to being enough for the families that were impacted by that decision. But by rejecting it outright, and saying it is meaningless, I believe she misses the bigger picture.

Nothing anyone could ever do could right the wrong that was committed in 1939. But this apology is not just about 1939. It is about 2017, and 2039, and any time in the future that our country may be put in a similar situation of needing to decide whether to accept or reject refugees.

The government needs to apologize for the MS St. Louis, because it needs to admit that it was the wrong thing to do. It needs to admit it to itself, to its citizens, and to the future generations of politicians and lawmakers. When it does, it is telling us as Canadians; that Canada, that turned hundreds of Jews away, sending them to their deaths, does not exist anymore. It tells us as Canadians; we will not repeat the mistakes of our past.

The alternative is to leave an example and precedent of when we chose to not accept refugees. It leaves the conversation open to an ambiguity around the situation; perhaps there was a reason the boat was turned away. These are things that we cannot allow to happen. Without the government admitting its mistake, too much is left up to interpretation. We can see an extreme example in the US, and even in Canada, of what happens when governments do not openly admit the problems of their past.

What this does is say loudly and clearly that this was not acceptable, and that Canada cannot do this again. I am very sorry for the loss of Sally’s family. And no, this apology will not bring any of them back. Apologies are in regards to the past, but looking to the future. It may very well prevent other families from going through similar horrible experiences. If this apology helps steer any person or politician in the future, and saves just one life, I think that makes it very meaningful. It cannot right the wrong that was committed in 1939, but it can hopefully help prevent another from occurring.