Thursday, June 12, 2008

How Powerful Are Apologies?


Our northern neighbors seem to be experiencing their historic moment regarding racial/ethnic justice. Canada has issued an apology for a misguided policy of attempting to "civilize" the children of indigenous peoples (from the Associated Press):

OTTAWA - In a historic speech, Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized yesterday to Canada's native peoples for the longtime government policy of forcing their children to attend state-funded schools aimed at assimilating them.

The treatment of children at the schools, where they were often physically and sexually abused, was a sad chapter in the country's history, he said from the House of Commons in an address carried live across Canada.

"Today, we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country," he said, as 11 aboriginal leaders looked on just feet away.

Indians packed into the public galleries and gathered on the lawn of Parliament Hill.

From the 19th century until the 1970s, more than 150,000 Indian children were required to attend state-funded Christian schools as part of a program to assimilate them into Canadian society.

Hundreds of former students witnessed what native leaders call a pivotal moment for Canada's more than 1 million Indians, who remain the country's poorest and most disadvantaged group. There are more than 80,000 surviving students.

"The government of Canada now recognizes that it was wrong to forcibly remove children from their homes and we apologize," Harper said.

"We now recognize that it was wrong to separate children from rich and vibrant cultures and traditions, and that it created a void in many lives and communities and we apologize," Harper said. (Read all about it here) You can also read extracts from the apology here.

This follows similar moves by several state governments in the U.S. regarding the enslavement of Africans.

I've been very skeptical of such social rituals regarding the harm done due to racism and ethnocentrism often thinking that one good policy promoting equity is worth a thousand apologies. But perhaps apologies and policy are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps there is a spiritual and moral power in these actions on the part of governments that is just as important as political or economic power. These apologies could be viewed as a form of truthfulness which Baha'i scripture emphasizes is the "foundation of all human virtues."

"Truthfulness is the foundation of all human virtues. Without truthfulness, progress and success, in all the worlds of God, are impossible for any soul. When this holy attribute is established in man, all the divine qualities will also be acquired."

What is true for the soul is also true for society. If we are to achieve a global civilization based on spiritual principles, then truthfulness is the foundation of our civic virtues, virtues necessary for "progress and success". Perhaps these apologies are more than just political theater but are actually indicators of a human race advancing on the path of God. I certainly hope so!