Yesterday the Liberal Government made a formal apology from the floor of the House of Commons. In his speech Trudeau apologised for the 1914 Komagata Maru incident where hundreds of immigrants from India were turned away, clear evidence of the selective nature of Canadian immigration at the time. Most Canadians were not aware of this particular piece of Canadian history (nor was I before yesterday) despite our pride in claiming that we are a diverse, multicultural, welcoming society with a long history of accepting refugees and immigrants from around the globe. Given that both Harper and Trudeau have made comments on the record about the lack of colonialism in our national history, it is imperative that all efforts be made in a democracy to engage with the past.
I'm often told, as an historian, that my field of work is (among other things): dead, irrelevant, boring, stuffy, intellectual, or bunk. While it is tiresome to hear these criticisms, I'm not surprised in the least. Our conceptualisation of history is that it is something akin to a record of the past, a book you can pull off the shelf that tells you definitively about a specific event or person.
In reality, history is discipline not about what happened but in fact what is written about what happened. In the same vein of the tree falling in the forest, an event is not a historical event unless someone bore witness and recorded it (don't let the history channel confuse you). Public history, which is the the way in which we engage with its past through education, museums, holidays, film, is essentially the official memory of a society. Often looked down on by academics, public history is often seen as an attempt to curate the story of a society with one large narrative (which is antithetical to the practice of history).
In the case of Canadian immigration, the notion of not engaging with the narrative critically is a problem. We have seen this with, for example, the 2006 apology for the Indian Residential School System. In spite of the effort to address the egregious colonial institutions of the past, we have continued to fail First Nations in areas of education, health, infrastructure, employment, governance, representation, justice, and more.
Apologies are nothing more than a starting point. They allow us to focus on what has to be done after claiming responsibility so that the harm can be remembered and that we can move toward building bridges. Public history has a significant role to play in addressing the past, from the embarrassing to the criminal.