Jackson Doughart
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The Apology Doctrine

Prince Arthur Herald, 20 November 2013

I find the Canadian practice of consistent, unending, and blanket apology to Aboriginal peoples to be very rich. And not because serious wrongs were not committed against Aboriginals by culturally-European (i.e., Christian) regimes, but because such apologies cannot be genuine. To apologize for something is to sincerely regret that it had happened. But given that the creation of Canada depended on prior European colonization, who could honestly wish that settlement of the New World had never occurred?

Claims to the contrary form the genesis of today’s pseudo-enlightened, self-congratulatory, self-righteous, and nebulous moralism. There is no concrete political program resulting from the admission of sins against the doctrine of historical grievance. What matters is the posture. Our culture labours, according to the new-age moralists, under the taint of an original sin, emanating from their version of the Fall of Man. Whereas Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, we ate from the Tree of Empire.

The case of residential schools shows how the endpoint of a historical period shapes the interpretation of the period itself. The critical fact about policies of forced assimilation is that they overwhelmingly failed. Had they succeeded in producing subsequent generations of people who were Aboriginal in blood but European in culture, there is no doubt that society’s repudiation of those events would be far less categorical. In fact, the “assimilates” would simply become another constituent in the smorgasbord ethnicity called “white”.

Yes, from the ethical armchair we could pronounce that “the ends did not justify the means”. But societies do not operate from ethical armchairs; the legacy of history is always filtered through its ultimate results. If residential schools had succeeded in assimilating Aboriginal peoples, irrespective of how bad the schools were, people demanding state apologies and restitution would be seen as kooks. Is that wrong? Only if such people were willing to seriously say that they desired a pre-assimilation state of affairs. Otherwise, it’s just empty posturing.

Take that case and expand it from 1492 to present and we see the absurdity of today’s equivalent calls for apology and restitution, which ultimately confuse the concepts of historical responsibility and historical guilt. After all, if the result of the European settlement had been unsuccessful, none of today’s non-Aboriginal majority would be here — a dubious ground for feelings of guilt.

The ideology of apology-ad-infinitum is based on a strict historical narrative — a presentation of past events that is constructed to support a worldview. The Apologizer’s narrative presents pre-“discovery” America as a pristine, peaceful, pre-technological paradise. Then, goes the story, the imperial filth arrived and doused the place in war, private property, and smallpox.

Of course, historical narratives do not depend for their success on historical accuracy. The “peaceful” bit of the pre-Fall state is especially wrong, seeing as how Aboriginal tribes had been warring with one another since well before Columbus, Cartier, and Champlain. And after the Fall, it was not simply Europeans versus Aboriginals in battle. Aboriginal groups continued to fight against each other. European groups battled against other European groups. Europeans and Aboriginals allied with one another to battle other alliances of Europeans and Aboriginals. And so on.

The notion of clear-cut ethnic divisions is also inaccurate. Reproduction between Europeans and Aboriginals is centuries-old, creating, for example, the Métis people.

But let’s accept, for the sake of argument, the narrative of a black-and-white division between imperializing Europeans and innocent Aboriginals. There is still the matter of stating the narrative’s conclusion. I would say that there are only two logical morals to this story:

1. That humans are tribal beings who fight with one another over territory, and that the outcomes of these battles are almost never determined by ideals of universal and objective justice. Such a thing may exist in theory, and may be observed within groups, but is absent in the amoral wilderness of inter-group competition, where ultimately Might is Right. In the case of the competition between Europeans and Aboriginals in the Americas, the latter, for the most part, lost.

2. That the tainting of the pristine paradise constitutes a grave crime, requiring of fundamental redress. This could only be logically achieved by rewinding the tape. In other words, all non-Aboriginals would have to “go back where they came from”. What, short of this, could make up for the gravity of what happened? (In my case, I’d have to be torn in a few pieces, with my head and torso going to Scotland and my limbs being scattered through the Low Countries. After all, the ethnic combinations that went into the production of the author were blended right here in the New World, suggesting that I am as “native” as any Aboriginal person.)

Unless one is prepared to accept the full extent of #2, anything short of #1 is just pat-your-own-back, vacuous, faux-ethics. If you like your own culture and believe it to have value (starting with your own presence therein), then consider the abjectness and contradiction in apologizing for its very existence.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com