What an annoying way to start the day: After an exceptionally bad night’s sleep, to have to get up and actually think out an argument that’s not an emotional reaction. It’s just not fair. But it serves me right for reading intelligent people with whom I don’t agree with when I first get up.
In a story in today’s online “Globe and Mail” Jeffrey Simpson presents some strong arguments against offering compensation to groups with past grievances with the government of Canada. As he says, Canada is predominantly populated by the oppressed; people who have fled from other countries, or who have been conquered. Dating back to the initial French colonies, through the British conquest, the head tax on Asian immigrants in late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and the internment of Japanese Canadians during World War Two, there’s quite a history of cultural groups who could make a case that they are “owed” by the government.
In a nutshell his argument is that if you provide compensation to a group for past damages, you are fostering a perception that some people are getting preferential treatment. It’s that type of perception that leads to resentments and groups dividing themselves along ethnic lines.
Think of the resentment that so many people have towards Quebec or Natives in Canada and you can see the validity of his argument. Mr. Simpson argues that instead of compensating people we need to look at the mistakes in our collective past, learn from them so they won’t happen again, and move on. If we don’t it makes that task of building a unified Canada all that much harder.
While I agree with him about the potential for that result, I disagree with the reason. I don’t think that it’s the compensation of people for past wrongs that’s the problem; it is the perceived favouring of one group over another that causes resentment. If you see someone else getting a big healthy check for reasons that aren’t clear to you, and you’re not getting anything, that’s going to piss you off.
There wasn’t much that former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney did that I agreed with, but one action I did accept was his decision to finally compensate the families of Japanese Canadians who were interred during World War Two. These people had their businesses and homes taken from them and never returned, even after the end of the war.
The ramifications continued to be felt by that community long after the war was over, as families were forced to re-establish themselves. What kind of sense of security would you have about your life, if it had been snatched away so easily at the whim of the government once? Why shouldn’t it happen again? I can only image the act of faith it would have taken to even risk starting over again.
So there were many reasons that justified the compensation. The problem was that at the same time the government was doing this, it was dragging its heels on pensions for Canadian soldiers who had fought in Hong Kong against the Japanese army, and had spent years in living in horrible conditions in prisoner of war camps. You can imagine how that made the Canadian soldiers and their families feel.
They were technically two separate issues, but it sure wouldn’t look like that to anybody outside the Japanese community. It looked like the government was taking care of “the enemy” before taking care of the soldiers who fought for our country against them.
The issue of handing out compensation along ethnic and racial lines is very sensitive, but governments insist on handling it in their usual ham-fisted way. After years of policies encouraging white farmers and settlers to homestead native land, they have now turned around and started giving the land back to the natives with the same cavalier attitude that started the problem hundreds of years ago.
Even people who are sympathetic to the plight of natives would be pissed off if land their family had been living on for two hundred years was just yanked out from under them. If I didn’t know that they aren’t smart enough to be that devious, I’d swear the government was doing it on purpose, to build up resentment against natives and others. The more likely scenario is that they just don’t think things through enough to realize the consequences of their actions.
There are many instances throughout the short history of Canada in which the actions of the government have caused pain and suffering to specific groups of people. While it is important to ensure that we learn the lessons of the past so as to avoid repeating them, it is equally important that some indication of remorse on the part of the government be offered.
Without that it will be impossible for those groups who were affected to ever feel comfortable in our society. Tangible assurances are very important to those who have suffered injustice; they go a long way in communicating that they are now considered an equal participant in our country. What is equally important is that no other group is made to feel slighted through the circumstances of their redress.
It is an extremely difficult yet essential task that Canadian governments face, if they are serious in maintaining our status as a multicultural society, finding the balance between compensation and preferred treatment. As Mr. Simpson points out there are many groups who have legitimate grievances against the Canadian government. Instead of sweeping them all under the carpet as the mistakes of history, our country will be better served by examining each one individually.
It may take some time, and require patience on the part of some people, but in the long run it will make for a stronger and more understanding country. I think that’s worth the wait and effort.