Apologizing for the past isn’t enough

It's a phrase that is often employed in these rhetorically overheated times:

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 06/11/2018 (1489 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It’s a phrase that is often employed in these rhetorically overheated times:

Words matter.

That’s the reason many in this country will be watching with great interest on Wednesday when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rises in the House of Commons to issue an official apology on behalf of Canadians for the 1939 decision to deny asylum to 907 German Jews aboard the MS St. Louis.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will issue an official apology on behalf of Canadians for the 1939 decision to deny asylum to 907 German Jews aboard the MS St. Louis. (Adrian Wyld / The Canadian Press)

The passengers, German citizens who had boarded the ship on May 13 in a desperate effort to escape persecution and probable extermination at the hands of the Nazis in the lead-up to the Second World War, were seeking a safe place to restart their lives. First denied permission to disembark in Cuba, they travelled to the United States and were denied entry there as well. The ship continued northward to Canada, and once again, their request for asylum was refused — Canada, at the time, had adopted a “none is too many” immigration policy when it came to Jewish refugees.

With nowhere else to turn, the St. Louis returned to Europe, where many of the asylum-seekers were condemned to concentration camps. More than one-quarter, 254 in all, were murdered during the Holocaust.

When Mr. Trudeau stands to address Parliament, he will make reference to these historical facts. But for his words to have any real significance in the current context, in which incidents of anti-Semitism are rising at an appalling rate, the prime minister’s statement must be much more than a recognition of past wrongs.

It must be, in no uncertain terms, a call to action.

Earlier this year, an analysis released by B’Nai Brith Canada stated that 2017 represented the fifth consecutive year in which incidents of anti-Semitism had risen in this country — this, despite an overall decline in the number of such incidents worldwide. In assessing the data, analysts Amanda Hohman and Aidan Fishman said the numbers suggest anti-Semitism “is becoming mainstream” in Canada.

The MS St. Louis was denied entry into Cuba, the United States and Canada in 1939. (The Canadian Press files)

Meanwhile, south of the border, the U.S. is still reeling in the aftermath of the Oct. 27 mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue that left 11 dead and seven wounded and put a glaring spotlight on the link between inflamed political rhetoric, rising nationalist (read: racist) sentiment and the seeming unwillingness of some elected officials to condemn the collection of toxic attitudes and behaviours commonly covered by the “alt-right” descriptor.

In apologizing for Canada’s role in the fate of the 907 aboard the St. Louis — and, one presumes, for the deeply entrenched anti-Semitic policies and actions that remained part of the Canadian conversation for decades after the Second World War’s end — Mr. Trudeau must also declare that his government and, by extension, the nation it represents are taking positive and active steps to address the discrimination that continues to infect 21st-century Canadian society.

As evidenced by the posting of several “It’s OK to be white” posters on walls at the University of Manitoba last week, discrimination in our communities is not limited to anti-Semitism. And racism in all forms must be challenged and rejected.

The prime minister’s apology for Canada’s treatment of the passengers of the MS St. Louis can be a meaningful element in that effort, but only if his words are made to matter by clearly connecting a past misdeed with a present in which simmering anti-Semitism remains an inescapable part of what defines us as a nation.

Children are shown on the deck of the MS St. Louis in this undated handout photo. (The Canadian Press files)

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