Are Government Apologies Significant?

A push for a Government of Canada apology over the fate of the M.S. St. Louis has come from various sectors in our community in recent years. The M.S. St. Louis set sail from Hamburg, Germany to Cuba in 1939 with 937 Jewish passengers aboard. They were fleeing Hitler’s wrath.

Upon arrival, the refugees were summarily denied entry by Cuba. The ship then turned its sights on America but was denied asylum there too. When it headed for the Port of Halifax, the refugees must have been hopeful that the land of the “glorious and free” would give them shelter. Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King refused to give them entry and turned the ship back to Europe where it’s believed some 250 of the original 937 passengers were murdered by the Nazis.

The previous Conservative government initiated the Wheel of Conscience in Halifax’s Pier 21 – a memorial to hundreds of Jews on the M.S. St. Louis who were turned away on the eve of the Second World War. But is a formal government apology overdue? After all, successive governments have been apologizing for many abhorrent policies in Canada’s past.

Some have argued that government apologies have become too common, politicized and sometimes misplaced.

However, stronger views in support of an apology have prevailed with good reason. When asked, one FSWC leader observed that “the purpose of an apology, such as this, is not for the victims or the past, but rather for the future, with the hope that future generations will not repeat the mistakes of the past. With this in mind, I think that there is value in the Canadian government recognizing its mistakes.”

Another FSWC leader argued that “the more apologies/discussions/education regarding the Holocaust the better. Millennials, for example, do not know enough about the Holocaust…so yes, a formal apology gives society a platform to remind people of the atrocities.” This observation is significant given a recent study that found that 41% of Americans and 66% of millennials cannot say what Auschwitz was. Canadians should take note.

As history fades and our institutional mission to never forget and always educate becomes more paramount, our role should be to encourage more dialogue. A third FSWC leader recalled “Brian Mulroney’s speech at the Spirit of Hope several years ago (and last year). He talked about Canada’s terribly poor treatment of Jews in past years. He singled out antisemitic prime ministers from the past. He was clear, direct and critical of Canada’s conduct in the past. The reception to his remarks was overwhelmingly positive, and I heard many people discuss this for months following the event.”

Certainly, in our fight against antisemitism, hatred and intolerance, recognition of historical injustices is paramount in the advancement of human rights in general for all people. Apologies stand on the record for all time and enter the general lexicon of history. They inform and educate the public and they re-form national identity. When it comes to Holocaust education and recognition, Canada has become an important global torch bearer – the opening of the Holocaust Monument in Ottawa this past fall is a testament to that reality.

So yes, government apologies are significant, as is the memory of the 250 M.S. St. Louis passengers murdered by the Nazis because Canada turned them away at our shores.

About the Author
Avi Benlolo is the President and CEO of Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies (FSWC), a Jewish non-profit human rights organization. Avi is a prominent Canadian human rights activist dedicated to promoting tolerance, freedom, democracy and human rights.
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