On Human and Institutional Lifespans

In this essay, Alexandra Law examines the commonly-expressed view that it is inappropriate to offer apologies or compensation for wrongs of the past. She argues, with a focus on two dark periods in Canadian history, that we need to consider the notion of institutional responsibility.


In his book, The Inconvenient Indian, Thomas King includes a chapter entitled “Forget about it,” which begins as follows:

“Today is a new day. Let’s enjoy it together. This is a great sentiment. I like it. Maybe it is time for Native people – such as me – to stop complaining about the past” (King 159)

King sounds a sharp note of irony in this passage, but many of us have heard or read similar statements made without a hint of jest. This calls for the opposite of truth and reconciliation, which is why it can lead to sorrow, anger or a renewed urgency among justice seekers.

Calls for redress for longstanding wrongs are sometimes met with opposition from those who see these demands as simply “complaining about the past,” as King puts it. From this perspective, a wrong may be worthy of acknowledgement and regret, but it is unrealistic to demand any concrete action in response, since the harm occurred so long ago. Several Canadian events come to mind, but here are two: the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War, and the residential school system, designed to forcibly assimilate Aboriginal children, operating from the late 1800s until 1996. Each of these wrongs evokes its own uniquely painful memories, and exerts its own continuing effects today. One element they hold in common is the government-sponsored racism which made them possible. Another is that in each case, it took many years of struggle before the wrong was acknowledged publicly and redress, however imperfect, became available.

In June 1984, then-Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau was asked whether he would support compensation and an apology to the Japanese Canadians whose property and liberty were taken from them by the government over forty years earlier. Recall that the World War II internment was a devastating event. Families were forced to live in camps, business owners saw their property seized and enterprises shut down by the government, and Canadians of Japanese ancestry had their loyalty to the country questioned in a time of war, all without ever being charged with a crime (CBC). For many years, former internees and their allies had demanded that the government apologize, recognize that the internment was wrong, and offer compensation for their losses. However, in 1984 the Prime Minister stated, “I do not see how I can apologize for some historic event to which we or these people in this House were not a party. We can regret that it happened…” (CBC). It took four more years for the government to offer an official apology and compensation.

I do not propose to analyse Pierre Trudeau’s worldview or motives when he made that statement. Instead, I would like to encourage us to think about how the notion of “institutional responsibility” (see e.g. Erskine) might help explain the distance which sometimes separates those who call for present-day justice for past acts, and those who suggest that everyone should “forget about it” and move on.

When Trudeau made his reply in the House of Commons in 1984, the Prime Minister explained that he, and his colleagues present, had nothing to do with the internment. Taken on its own, the statement seems perfectly reasonable. After all, Trudeau was not Prime Minister at the time, and it was not his decision to make. However, the purpose of demanding redress was not to put the blame for the internment directly on the politicians of the 1980s. Redress was demanded not from individual Members of Parliament, but from the government of Canada as an institution. The public acknowledgement became part of Canada’s history and identity, the compensation a necessary step toward reconciliation.

An institution can live for hundreds of years, while an individual human cannot. This means that an institution may inflict harm at one point in history, but those in power might not listen to the call for justice until enough time has passed for the dominant worldview of a society to change. By then, the individual decision-makers in that institution may have moved on and individual accountability may be difficult to obtain – but that does not mean that reconciliation is any less important.

Likewise, when the federal government officially apologized for the residential school system in 2008, the leaders of the political parties made statements in their roles as institutional actors. The late Jack Layton apologized in his role as leader of a federal political party, offering a description of the evil of this system which is worth citing at length:

Today we mark a very significant moment for Canada. It is the moment when we, as a Parliament, as a country, take responsibility for one of the most shameful periods in our history. It is the moment for us to finally apologize. It is the moment when we will start to build a shared future, a future based on equality and built on mutual respect and truth.

It was this Parliament that enacted, 151 years ago, the racist legislation that established the residential schools. This Parliament chose to treat First Nations, Métis and Inuit people as not equally human. It set out to kill the Indian in the child. That choice was horribly wrong. It led to incredible suffering. It denied First Nations, Métis and Inuit the basic freedom to choose how to live their lives. For those wrongs that we have committed, we are truly sorry…” (Parliament of Canada)

When Layton spoke these words – when he used the word ‘we’ – he was apologizing on behalf of an institution, not for anything that he personally had done.

Institutions can potentially live forever, while human beings have finite lives. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada recognized as much in its 2012 Interim Report, when it stated that “for a variety of reasons, including the advanced age of many of the former students, the Commissioners believe certain messages must be relayed to Canadians now” (Truth and Reconciliation Commission 4). When truth and reconciliation are delayed, sometimes by generations, it can be a tragedy. Testimony can be lost, and the individual people responsible for terrible acts may escape judgment. Acknowledging responsibility on an institutional level does not make up for this. What it can do is recognize the continuing consequences of past injustice and perhaps, sometimes, offer a path toward truth and reconciliation.


Works Cited

Thomas King. The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America (Toronto: Penguin Random House, 2013). Print.

Parliament of Canada. Edited Hansard, 39th Parliament, 2nd Sessionm Number 110, Wednesday, June 11, 2008. Web. < http://www.parl.gc.ca/HousePublications/Publication.aspx?DocId=3568890 >

Truth and Reconciliation Commission. “Interim Report” (Winnipeg: Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 2012). Web.  <www.trc.ca>

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. “Japanese Canadians: The struggle continues” CBC Digital Archives (video). Web.

Toni Erskine. “Assigning Responsibilities to Institutional Moral Agents: The Case of States and ‘Quasi-States’” in Toni Erskine (ed.) Can Institutions Have Responsibilities? Collective Moral Agency and International Relations (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003)

Suggestions for Further Reading:

Law Commission of Canada. “Restoring Dignity: Responding to Child Abuse in Canadian Institutions, Executive Summary” Ottawa: Minister of Public Works and Government Services, 2000. Web. < http://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2008/lcc-cdc/JL2-7-2000-1E.pdf >

Alfred L. Brophy. Reparations Pro & Con (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006)

Joy Kogawa. Itsuka (New York: Anchor Books, 1994)

Alexandra Law

Humanities, Dawson College

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One Response to On Human and Institutional Lifespans

  1. Kelly MacDonald March 27, 2016 at 5:54 pm #

    I agree that institutional responsibility is key. By saying that “I wasn’t responsible for your suffering”, we are making it easier to perpetuate abuse in the future. If there is a collective responsibility from Canadians, then we can truly protect, acknowledge and reconcile together. If we are all invested in each others’ wellbeing, we are more likely to progress as a community and less likely to abuse a minority, such as what was done in Canada in the past. It is important for governments to give apologies for atrocities from the past, even though their party might not have been in power. Just because it is not of great consequence to them does not mean that it is unimportant for the thousands of people who were actually affected by residential schools or Japanese internment, people searching for reconciliation.

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