In December 1970 the then Chancellor of West Germany, Willy Brandt, while on a visit to Poland went down on his knees to apologise before a memorial to those who died in the Warsaw Ghetto in WW2. In 2008, around the time Kevin Rudd was making his celebrated apology to the Stolen Generation, Angel Merkel, in a speech before the Israeli Knesset, said that Germans were “filled with shame” over Germany’s role in the war. The political class in Germany is undoubtedly sincere in its expressions of remorse and, generally, the European nations which suffered under the Nazi onslaught have accepted the various apologies despite the suspicion that, whenever the German leaders express regret at what happened in WW2, the Bavarians have their fingers crossed.
Japan has also made numerous attempts to apologise for its activities in WW2 but has been less successful in having those apologies accepted by the nations which suffered during Japan’s insane rampage across Asia. This raises the question of when are apologies accepted and when are they rejected? What are the criteria which will determine the outcome of an apology?
The various attempts by the Japanese to offer apologies to its Asian neighbours have been doomed for two reasons. Firstly the half-hearted and equivocal manner in which the apologies are couched. Shortly after Japan’s defeat, Emperor Hirohito said, “We declared war on America and Britain out of our sincere desire to ensure Japan’s self-preservation and the stabilization of East Asia, it being far from our thought either to infringe upon the sovereignty of other nations or to embark upon territorial aggrandizement.’
This sort of statement is, of course, more likely to inflame than calm victims of Japanese aggression. The many subsequent apologies offered by the Japanese Government have been worded much more carefully but still, the Japanese have not had the same response to their apologies as the Germans have.
The second reason for the grudging acceptance or outright rejection of Japanese apologies is because it suits some nations not to accept them. In particular, China refuses to accept Japan’s numerous apologies and cynically uses WW2 for its own political ends. Chinese leaders like to stoke anti-Japanese sentiment to give their own dictatorship political legitimacy. Apologies can be used to bring people together in reconciliation or to keep them apart.
In Canada, in 2008, the then prime minister, Stephen Harper, issued what can only be described as a genuine and sincere apology to the Canadian First Nation peoples for the policy of taking children from their communities to be educated in a residential school system. The idea of the Residential School program was that it would ensure the kids got a good education and encourage assimilation with the wider Canadian population. The Canadian system showed exactly the same sort of systemic problems as the Australian mission schools and, in particular, the sexual abuse of children in Canadian church schools went unreported over generations.
In November last year the current Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, issued another apology to the same people and threw in some genuine tears and 50 million Canadian dollars in compensation. Fifty million is, of course, a paltry sum compared to the $130 billion dollars which, according to last Monday’s front page report in The Australian – $130bn to close shamefully little of the gap – was spent by recent Australian Governments to improve the living standards of indigenous Australians. The most recent apology met with a similar response to the various previous apologies. For some indigenous leaders, it wasn’t good enough and it is worthwhile asking what is to be gained by offering more apologies when it suits some political leaders not to accept them.
The parallels between Canada’s and Australia’s relationship with their respective Indigenous populations are remarkable. From the eighteenth to early twentieth centuries, Australian and Canadian Aborigines were generally treated badly by the settlers who took over their traditional lands. From the end of World War II, a growing awareness of past injustices became a prominent feature of political debate in both countries. On Canadian native reservations, exactly the same sort of problems that we see in remote indigenous communities are common. Alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, neglect of children and general Durkheimian “anomie” prevail.
No matter whether apologies are offered every decade or every week, and irrespective of whether compensation comes in the millions or the billions, the simple fact is that, so far, all attempts to integrate the indigenous populations of Canada and Australia into the wider community have had limited success.
Canada’s population, like Australia’s, is largely based on European migration and more recently a substantial Asian component has arrived and of course, both nations like to give themselves a pat on the back for their success at integrating disparate ethnic communities into cohesive nations. Malcolm Turnbull likes to say that Australia is the most successful multicultural nation in the world but Trudeau could probably make the same claim concerning Canada. While both leaders would accept that their two nations represent the most successful form of multiculturalism, they would be less keen to see parallels in the failure to integrate their respective indigenous populations. The two leaders would also be reluctant to admit that our present state of knowledge does not allow us to solve the problems that confront our respective native populations. This does not mean that we should give up. There is no alternative but to keep devoting billions of dollars to various schemes to improve the health and living standards of our indigenous peoples.
But it is time we looked at the value of repeated apologies for past injustices. Kevin Rudd’s 2008 apology for all its sincerity, like that of various Canadian prime ministers, achieved very little in practical terms. The billions that have been spent to close the gap have achieved very little. Billions more may have to be spent. It is time we stopped apologising. Just as it suits the Chinese not to accept Japan’s apologies, no matter what is said by our politicians, it won’t satisfy indigenous activists.
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