As a journalist, I grew up reading certain opinion writers (columnists) in Canadian and U.S. newspapers. I soon had my favourites. I also discovered how badly so many wrote; how prejudiced they could be, how little insight and perspective they put into their columns. Most of the columns seemed to be top of the head stuff that almost any knuckle-dragger could have written. They were that bad. Many still are.
One of my teachers wrote a book about the best – and the best known – of these opinion writers called “The Pundits.” He considered the best of them opinion leaders; writers who earned the trust of readers regardless of political leanings, social classes or jobs. Farmers, bus drivers and university profs read their columns because they cared what their country was doing in their names. Policy makers read them to see if their work made sense to average voters, or was just another brain fart.
Jeffery Simpson was rated highly in that book and on my personal list of faves, but not in top spot of either. He was – is – an intelligent person and a good writer. He writes with intelligence, and sometimes flair, but IMHO is fundamentally lazy. He wants to belong. He wants to be liked, even loved, and respected. This is where so many columnists lose me.
I believe a good columnist should care more about the long-term effects of what he or she writes. How do their words capture the mood of the country, explain the actions of the powerful. Do they show whether the emperor is naked or wearing women’s panties beneath that three-piece suit? Is the columnist just filling space, writing what they hope will be read and liked because real opinions lead to cancelled dinner invitations. Should a good columnist care about any of that shit?
I bring this up because, while catching up on things Canadian, one of Simpson’s columns caught my eye. It has bothered me since. At the end of May, Simpson wrote a column on “the apology industry.” It was sparked no doubt by the so-called Aboriginal truth and reconciliation exercise that is about to take off here in Canada, and a formal apology that Prime Minister Stephen Harper will make to Aboriginal peoples on behalf of this country for the damage caused to them by the federal native residential school systems.
Simpson take is in the first three paragraphs:
We were told 20 years ago, in 1988, that the apology would be the last because the injustice was the worst.
So declared then-prime minister Brian Mulroney in offering an apology, payments and a community fund for Japanese-Canadians interned during the Second World War. This was a terrible abuse, the prime minister said. It was a unique case. There would be no more.
Prime minister Pierre Trudeau, when previously pressed to do likewise, had resisted, arguing that we can only be just in our time and that once an apology (and more) was given for this or that historical event, there would be no end of demands for others.
Sure enough, writes Simpson, next came the Chinese-Canadians, the Ukrainian-Canadians, and the Italian-Canadians, all seeking compensation for the damages wreaked upon them by – and this is Simpson’s argument – past Canadian governments.
Simpsons writes how the Liberals went one step further than mere compensation when Chinese-Canadians pressured former PM Paul Martin, in the heat of an election, to issue an apology as well. The Conservative Party under Harper are now negotiating a package – and an apology – for the 1914 Komagata Maru incident when Canada denied entry to 376 Sikhs on board a stinking freighter in Vancouver harbour for weeks using immigration laws of the day to justify this little bit of racial bigotry.
That last bit is mine. Nowhere in Simpson’s column does the issue of racial discrimination take place, official or otherwise. It’s all rather sanitary. Just bad luck to be born at the wrong place, wrong time. Righty-o? Time to get on with your lives so we can get back to our rightful places in the scheme of things. Apparently, all of these events had nothing to do with systemic racism entrenched in policies of the past that continue to adversely affect people to this day.
This is what grates. The overwhelming sense of denial. Simpson criticizes an “apology/victimization industry” without bothering to ask a crucial question: Who victimized them? Where did this almost divine sense of entitlement by one race over others come from? Didn’t the governments of the day have any responsibility whatsoever to live up to the fine words they wrote in their hallowed documents and etched upon the facades of their cherished institutions? Or was it all a big boo-boo?
Simpson is wrong. It isn’t an industry of apology and victimization that’s the problem. The problem is this overwhelming attitude today in government – and the media, including its newspaper columnists – to shy away from uncomfortable questions that might require some serious soul-searching on Canada’s part. The real problem is with the Hypocrisy/Denial industries that exert themselves today, still based on past – and false – assumptions.
It is so easy to slam the apology that Harper is about to make to residential school survivors – and they are survivors in every sense of the word. They deserve an apology for the deliberate, thoroughly considered decision by this country to obliterate the langauges, cultures and independence of Indigenous peoples living within its boundaries.
The compensation paid to the survivors is as much for Canada’s bureaucrats, who continue to push their agendas upon Aboriginal peoples. It serves as a warning, similar to damages awarded by civil courts, to remind them that they must not ever again devise such odious policies that seek to destroy entire nations of peoples.