Cleansing the Past: A Closer Look at Mulroney’s Apology to Japanese Canadians

During his last day as Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau rebuffed Japanese Canadian redress advocates, telling them, “I cannot rewrite history.”[i] Past actions cannot be undone but history can indeed be rewritten. In the 1980s, the National Association of Japanese Canadians (NAJC) sought official acknowledgment of the injustices they suffered in the 1940s so that official Canadian histories might be amended to recognize their experiences.

On September 22, 1988, after years of often tense negotiations, Brian Mulroney delivered the apology and redress Trudeau had withheld. Author Takeo Ujo Nakano spoke for many Japanese Canadians that day when he announced, “our joy is unsurpassable.”[ii] NAJC president Art Miki celebrated the apology as “a major achievement for the community.”[iii] It is undeniable that after years of activism, the National Association of Japanese Canadians greeted Order-in-Council P.C. 1988-89/2552 with pride, elation, and relief. But what did redress accomplish for the Canadian government?

“The simple act of apology,” Eva Mackey writes, “does a lot for the apologizer.”[iv] What the apology did for the apologizer in this case can be understood by analyzing Mulroney’s speech to the House of Commons and the text of the acknowledgement itself. The Prime Minister told his colleagues and the assembled representatives of the Japanese Canadian community that redress had been negotiated, “to put things right with their children, and ours, so that they can walk together in this country, burdened neither by the wrongs nor the grievances of previous generations.”[v] In providing a settlement to surviving internees, the Canadian government hoped to lift the burden of its past wrongs.

Comparing the apology ritual to Catholic confession, Mackey asserts that it allows the offender to move on, “washed clean and innocent, feeling redeemed, future-looking, and unified[.]”[vi] Mulroney tellingly claimed redress would “cleanse the past so that we may […] in good conscience face the future.”[vii] Redress would not simply acknowledge the past; it would wash it clean.

    The language used in the carefully crafted official acknowledgement effectively minimizes the role of racism in the actions taken against Japanese Canadians. Mulroney explains that, despite perceived military necessities at the time, the forced removal and internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II was unjust.”[viii] In early 1942, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had informed Cabinet that the coastal Japanese Canadian community posed no threat to security.[ix] In fact, the British Columbia Security Commission had to be created to round up Japanese Canadians and confiscate their property because the military, understanding the rationale to be entirely political, refused to do so.[x] As cabinet war committee minutes from December 29, 1941 revealed, “members of the special government committee as well as military, police and local authorities were concerned less at the possibility of subversive activity by the Japanese than at the danger of serious anti-Japanese outbreaks by the white population.”[xi]

Having misleadingly referred to ‘perceived military necessities’, Mulroney concedes that unjustified policies “were influenced by discriminatory attitudes.”[xii] His wording implies that racism was merely an influence when it was indeed the defining motivation for government policy.

In his speech, Mulroney ultimately asserted that discrimination against Japanese Canadians “went against the very nature of our country. We are a pluralistic society […] We are tolerant people who live in freedom in a land of abundance. That is the Canada of our ancestors. That is the Canada our ancestors worked to build.”[xiii] In arguing that wartime racial profiling of Japanese Canadians ‘went against the very nature of our country,’ Mulroney distracts Canadians from a long history of white supremacist policies and attitudes in British Columbia and the country at large.[xiv] Did the racist policies enacted against Japanese Canadians during World War II truly go against the nature of  ‘the Canada our ancestors worked to build’, a colonialist country characterized by exclusive immigration policies, disenfranchisement of Asian Canadians, and race riots?

NAJC president Art Miki’s brother Roy concludes that in achieving redress, Japanese Canadians “gave their wartime experience as a gift to the official history of the nation.”[xv] In drawing Canadians’ attention to unjust wartime policies toward Japanese Canadians, the redress movement made a vital contribution to the country’s history and their own community’s peace of mind. The Mulroney government certainly validated and recognized those who were wronged through compensation. The wording of Mulroney’s acknowledgement and speech to the House of Commons, however, demonstrates that the federal government also used redress as an occasion to sanitize Canada’s thorny history while shirking legal liability. Maryka Omatsu, a key figure in the NAJC negotiation team, disclosed that, “lawyers have been careful to maintain that the government was in no way admitting legal liability for the actions taken during the 1940s.” The Canadian government’s efforts to distance itself from legal responsibility evidently cast a shadow over the final resolution. [xvi] Expressing her own personal disappointment, Omatsu laments that the final Order-in-Council adopted on September 22, 1988, “is neither a shield nor a sword, but a bookkeeper’s account. Pay them their $21,000, even though we, the Canadian government, did nothing legally wrong.”[xvii]

Mulroney’s apology to Japanese Canadians may mean many different things to many different people. A nuanced approach recognizes that it was both a watershed moment in Canadian human rights advocates, and an opportunity to cleanse the past.

[i] Quoted in Maryka Omatsu, Bittersweet Passage: Redress and the Japanese Canadian Experience (Toronto: Between the Lines, 1992), 168.

[ii] Quoted in Omatsu, Bittersweet Passage, 17.

[iii] Letter from Art Miki, 1990, File: NAJC – National (1986-1990) By-laws Box 20, Japanese Cultural Community of Montreal, McGill University Archives.

[iv] Eva Mackey, “The Apologizers’ Apology,” in Reconciling Canada: Critical Perspectives on the Culture of Redress, eds. Jennifer Henderson and Pauline Wakeham (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2013), 49.

[v] Quoted in Art Miki and Cassandra Kobayashi, Justice in our time: The Japanese Canadian Redress Settlement (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1991), 144.

[vi] Michel Foucault quoted in Mackey, “The Apologizers’ Apology,” 49.

[vii] Quoted in Miki and Kobayashi, Justice in our time, 144.

[viii] Miki and Kobayashi, Justice in our time, 7.

[ix] Roy Miki, Redress: Inside the Japanese Canadian Call for Justice (Vancouver: Raincoast Books, 2004), 89.

[x] Democracy Betrayed, 1984, Box 4, Japanese Cultural Community of Montreal, McGill University Archives.

[xi] Quoted in Democracy Betrayed, 1984, Box 4, Japanese Cultural Community of Montreal, McGill University Archives.

[xii] Miki and Kobayashi, Justice in our time, 7.

[xiii] Quoted in Miki and Kobayashi, Justice in our time, 144.

[xiv] W. Peter Ward, White Canada Forever: Popular Attitudes and Public Policy toward Orientals in British Columbia (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002).

[xv] Roy Miki, Redress, 325.

[xvi] Omatsu, Bittersweet Passage, 169.

[xvii]Omatsu, Bittersweet Passage, 173.