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!


  1. i love that the australian and canadian governments have done this recently. i LOVE LOVE LOVE it. for me, it is a symbolic and real step in the direction of healing. when i think about the trauma of the Aboriginal peoples of these countries, and the governments' saying "We acknowledge that mistakes were made, and we apologise for being inhumane", and how with grief it is SO IMPORTANT for pain to be validated and acknowledged, i am just so glad that these apologies are FINALLY happening.

    naturally, this should be a beginning step. it is not an ultimate gesture in the sense of TRUE justice, understanding, and unity. but, oh my goodness, it is a first step.

    love, from leila

  2. Phillipe,

    It is of note that both Australia and Canada issued apologies for mistakes - that is, they believe that the actions they took toward forced assimilation were, in theory, based upon good intentions. Of course, the best of intentions have, historically, provided the greatest of cultural disasters.
    It would be difficult for the US government to state that the enslavement of black Africans was based upon a misguided notion of "helping" the slaves. The slave owners, of both North and South, were tapping an energy source. The North no longer "required" that same type of energy as it shifted from agriculture to manufacturing; so it could piously declare its freedom for/from slaves - while the shipowners of MA, RI, and CN made their fortunes in the slave trade. Such is, alas, history.
    Absent the initial positive intentions, how does the US "apologize" for the enslavement process? They cannot admit "error" as Canada and Australia did - for acts persisting into the 1970's; they can only admit guilt. Yet the US Government of today is one hundred and forty years distant from that which allowed slavery. If we start down the track of ancient transgressions where do we stop - Celts mistreatment of Picts, Romans enslavement of Greeks, Athenians taking Macedonian slaves, ab adsurdum?
    From a spiritual perspective, how/why do we repent for the base acts of our distant ancestors? [Given that the US is an immigrant nation, most of its present occupants have no historical connection to the US slavery.]
    Warmest Baha'i greetings,

  3. Chris3:59 PM

    One of the father's of Aboriginal reconciliation in Australia recently said, "Minister, it is not about policy, it is fundamentally about how you value Aboriginal people as human beings." Of course I hope good policy follows, but I did find myself suprised at how important and sacred the Australian apology was to Aboriginal peoples. The night before the apology I had three Aunty's (Female Aboriginal elders) at my house for dinner, 2 of them being from the stolen generation. They shared stories with my own children about their mother's sadness and their own suffering, but also shared how excited they were, organising at the last minute for us all to travel together to Canberra to watch the Apology. They were all very confident that this apology would release spiritual energy that would begin a process of healing for the nation. And again on "Sorry Day" a few weeks ago, at my university I attended the ceremony where a local elder said, "Have you listened to the trees lately? They are happier. The earth can begin healing again now." They too wait to see if actions will follow such powerful words, but the 'sorry' seems to be held as a much more significant historical and spiritual act than I had realised until these moments.

  4. Anonymous11:08 AM

    I think the Aboriginal view is a lot closer to the Baha'i Writings than our prevalent western view of such matters. There is such a close connection between souls in this world and the next. Might not such an apology, if sincere, also aid the progress of souls who were perpetrators of injustice, as well as those of the victims victims?
    Also, we should not forget Baha'u'llah's astonishing statement that refined, pure and sanctified souls who have passed to the next world cause the progress in this world, material and spiritual.

    As for responsibility: We have not chosen our forbearers, so, individually in a sense we can accept neither blame nor praise for their actions. However, we do owe it to our ancestors and those souls who have gone before us to do good works in their name.
    As an American, I would say that we have a responsibility to the living as well as our forbearers, whether our ancestors were recent immigrants, slaves, slave-holders, slave-traders, none of the above or all of the above. We are all the inheritors of the fruits, good and bad, of a society largely built on conquest and slavery.
    We should remember that Native Americans still suffer the most from the ills of America- in terms of educational level, alcoholism, rate of suicide, health problems, etc., and have reaped the least benefits. Closely allied with the establishment of justice, mandated to the followers of Baha'u'llah, is the necessity of reconciling the peoples and nations of the world.
    If sincere, and not just a "publicity stunt", I think apology has a great power. Perhaps the fact that such apologies are coming at a moment in history when the Baha'i Faith itself is undergoing expansion and transformation, are closely connected, and influenced by the same forces.
    Judith W.