Department of the Absurd: Apology to the Home Children

17 11 2009

The Australian government has apologized to the Home Children, British orphans who were sent to that country in past decades. The government of Canada, the “white Dominion” to which the largest number of Home Children were sent, has said that it has no plans to formally apologize to its Home Children. Canada does, however, plan to issue a commemorative stamp. New Zealanders are debating whether an apology is in order. Britain plans to apologize to all of the Home Children next year.

For British press coverage of this issue, see here, here, and here. For Australian news reports, see here, here, and here. For Canadian press coverage, see here, here, and here.

The ongoing campaign for an apology in Canada is as ridiculous as the one in Australia. It would be odd for Canada to apologize for accepting British child immigrant so soon after it apologized for excluding Chinese immigrants during roughly the same historical period! Both policies stemmed from the same racist-imperialist ideology: the Dominions wanted to get as many British people in as possible and to exclude those it deemed racially inferior. In both Canada and Australia, the Chinese were the victims of the immigration policies and the Home Children were the beneficiaries! One could argue that the aboriginal populations of the Dominions also suffered from the arrival of the Home Children and other subsidized British immigrants, since they had to share their countries’ resources with yet more white intruders.

As for the kids themselves, the children who came to the Dominions were better off as orphans in the Dominions than as orphans in Britain. We forget that  because incomes in the UK are today equivalent if not higher than those in the former white Dominions.  But in the early 20th century, an unskilled labourers could earn roughly twice as much in an hour in North America or Oceania as in Europe. Perhaps Canada should apologize to the whites who bought Japanese-Canadian businesses at fire-sale prices in 1942.  Maybe the government of South Africa should apologize to whites who benefited from the famous job-reservation rules under apartheid!

I would like to point out two historians who can speak on some authority about this topic. One is R. Douglas Francis of the University of Calgary, who is both the son of a Barnardo boy and one of the authors of the  textbook used in most Canadian history survey course. The second historian is Dr Tanya Evans, a research fellow at Macquarie University. It would be interesting to know what their views of the apology demands are.

Kevin Rudd on History Wars

27 08 2009

Kevin Rudd, the Labor Prime Minister of Australia, has called for an end to that country’s “history wars”.  See here, here, and here. The Australian history wars were between a group of professional historians and educators who wanted to emphasize the negative things in Australian’s past, the so-called “black-arm band” school, and a group of academic and educators whose political sympathies were largely with the political right. The debate centred on Aboriginal history and became wrapped up in the debate over  whether the Australian government should formally apologize to the country’s Aboriginals for past mistreatment. The leader of the second group was Keith Windschuttle, who argued that left-wing historians had essentially fabricated evidence in order to depict Australia’s first white settlers in the worst possible light. Windschuttle’s claims led to a fierce argument over whether the demise of Tasmania’s indigenous population could legitimately be called a “genocide”. This debate had obviously political overtones or implications. One of Kevin Rudd’s first acts as Prime Minister was to issue an apology to the country’s Aboriginal population, something John Howard, his centre-right predecessor, had repeatedly refused to do. [Note, John Howard has been quick to reply to Rudd’s statement regarding the history wars].

As a Canadian, I’m interested in the Australian history wars for a number of reasons. First, they have some definite parallels between the Australian history wars and the rather more muted struggles that took place within the Canadian historical profession in the 1990s. [In the 1990s, there was an acrimonious debate between Jack Granatstein, an outspoken historian of Canadian politics, and left-wing social historians. In his book Who Killed Canadian History, Granatstein suggested that the left-wing historians’ emphasis on Canada’s failings (e.g., racism towards Natives and Asian immigrants) had the tendency of undermining the patriotism of students.] Moreover, the issue of an apology also have Canadian overtones, although the preference of Canadians for more consensual modes of politics have meant that the differences between the two major parties on Native policy and related issues of historical interpretation are pretty minor. In Canada, it fell to the Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper to issue an apology for the government’s residential school program (which saw Native children snatched from their parents and educated by missionaries). Had the Liberal Party been in office at that time, it probably would have issued basically the same apology.   In Australia, it seems that the two major political parties are much further apart from each other when it comes to Aboriginal policy. This probably contributes to the acrimonious and highly politicized nature of the debate over Aboriginal history in that country.