At the time this article was
written Lois M. Moorcroft was the Member for Mount Lorne in the Yukon
Legislative Assembly and a member of the New Democrat Caucus. She is also
Minister of Justice, Minister of Education and Minister Responsible for the
Women’s Directorate. This is an edited version of a presentation to the 37th
Canadian Regional Conference in Toronto in July 1998.
is no question that past government actions have caused harm to people.
This article looks at some of the principles we need to consider in trying
to correct the wrongs. Among other things it argues for open and accountable
government. We also need to constantly ask if our response meets the standards
of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which we accept as the basic framework
of Canadian democracy? Where the damage still exists, how does the corrective
action deal with that damage? The author concludes that we can only increase
public confidence when we can ensure that the public has a voice in how the
This question goes to the heart
of governments’ responsibilities to control and direct the making and
administration of public policy that affects all members of society. In recent
years many individuals and groups have sought redress for social wrongs or physical
harm that took place long ago. The obvious answer is that it’s governments’
responsibility when governments make official decisions that seriously wrong
segments of society. The topic raises many other questions that must be
We live in a modern democratic
state. People’s rights are protected by the Canadian Constitution with its
Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The framework of principles that guides our
parliamentary democracy includes respect for human life, protection of the
vulnerable and a balance of individual and collective rights. We believe in
justice, the heart of the justice system being the rule of law, that the same
law applies to each and every one of us regardless of rank or privilege.
Justice deals with fairness, equity and equality.
What should happen then when a
wrong took place long ago at a time when the decision seemed reasonable
according to the knowledge available at that time? The degree of government
responsibility could be considered in relation to the level of government
control. Was there a choice for people to participate in the policy or program?
Was the power of the state being used to control citizens? If children were
involved, did their parents willingly or knowingly consent? Did they have other
options? To what degree do these past government actions stand in the way of
unity and harmony today?
We cannot undo all the
wrongs of the past. We can accept the responsibility of acknowledging past
wrongs, particularly when people today are still suffering the effects of those
Correcting past wrongs would
become ruinously expensive if a government were to go back in history and make
financial compensation to all wronged groups or their direct descendants.
Should these decisions then be based on such practicalities as financial
affordability, judicial rulings or facts established by independent
commissions? If we are to learn from past mistakes, we need to consider how
governments ensure they are making the right decisions for the right reasons.
A number of Canadian examples
come to mind when considering this question of correcting past wrongs. During
the First and Second World Wars the federal government forcibly confined
thousands of citizens who were believed to pose a threat to Canadian security.
In the Second World War the Defence of Canada Regulations authorized the
internment of anyone who was acting in a manner “prejudicial to the public
safety or the safety of the state.” Although Canadians and foreign citizens who
were considered sympathetic to Germany, Italy and Japan were locked up in war
camps, only the Japanese-Canadians have been successful in seeking an official
apology and financial compensation. What was special about their case?
In February 1942, the federal
government ordered the evacuation of all Japanese-Canadians living on the BC
coast to the interior as they might help in the event of a potential Japanese
invasion. Neither the military nor the Royal Canadian Mounted Police
recommended evacuation. The most real threat to public security on the west
coast came from the deeply ingrained anti-Oriental racism that had existed for
decades and had brought the threat of mob action. After more than 21,000 men,
women and children were evacuated, their property was seized and sold by the
government for a fraction of its value. Those who were interned were required
to pay for their keep and many Japanese-Canadians were forced to return to
A parliamentary committee took
the lead in supporting the campaign for redress as early as 1947. The public
accounts committee recommended a public inquiry. The James Henry Bird
commission recommended repayment and of 1,434 claims for over $7 million, $2.5
million was repaid.
The issue resurfaced because,
first, the US Congress established a commission on wartime relocation and
civilian internment. Second, Japanese-Canadians continued to fight for a
negotiated, honourable and meaningful settlement. Third, in March 1984, the
House of Commons report Equality Now recommended a negotiated settlement
to redress the mistreatment.
It is interesting that a March
1986 Environics poll indicated that 63% of Canadians favoured redress. The
National Association of Japanese Canadians had embarked on an educational
campaign to show that this was a human rights issue.
Prime Minister Trudeau said at
the time that it was “not the purpose of government to right the past. It
cannot rewrite history. Our purpose is to be just in our time and that is what
we have done by bringing in the Charter of Rights.” Prime Minister Mulroney, a
few years later, in announcing a not easily reached settlement, said again: “We
cannot change the past. But we must face up to these historical facts...put
things right...ease the burden of past wrongs.” The formal acknowledgement
which the Prime Minister signed in 1986 said, “As a people, Canadians commit
themselves to the creation of a society that ensures equality and justice for
all, regardless of race or ethnic origin.”
The settlement included granting
Canadian citizenship to those who had been expelled or had their citizenship
revoked, and financial compensation for the property which had been seized and
sold under value.
Residential schools is the
second area I would like to discuss. In the Yukon, we are quite familiar with
“mission school syndrome,” which does indeed affect society today.
The recent Royal Commission on
Aboriginal Peoples was established in 1991 and reported in 1995. It dealt with
aspects of the lives of first nations peoples and communities and their
relationship to Canada. Public attention to aboriginal issues had been
heightened by the constitutional reform process, the residential schools issue
and the Oka crisis.
From the late 1800s through to
1969, residential aboriginal schools were operated by several Christian
churches together with the federal government to “civilize the savages” and
“teach them a more Christian standard of cleanliness.” From 1969 to the 1980s,
the federal government continued to administer those residential schools
without the involvement of churches. Children were removed from their families
and communities, and some never saw their families again.
As the Royal Commission on
Aboriginal Peoples documented, the damage of the residential schools included a
poor quality of education; damage to the family structure, which for the
Athapaskan people in the Yukon was a matrilineal clan system; the repression of
language and culture. Children were punished for speaking their own language
and there was physical and emotional damage, not just to students who were
physically and sexually abused but to their family members inside and outside
the residential school environment.
The federal government response
to RCAP was issued in January 1998 with a statement of reconciliation which
acknowledged the contribution of aboriginal peoples to Canadian society. It
expressed “profound regret for past actions of the federal government which
contributed to these difficult pages in the history of our relationship
The present federal government
announced simultaneously a $350-million healing fund to aid victims of abuse.
The Aboriginal Healing Foundation is headed by Georges Erasmus, who had been
co-chair of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. It will fund holistic
and community-based healing initiatives to complement existing programs and to
meet currently unsupported needs.
The question of financial
compensation to individual victims of physical and sexual abuse is still before
the courts. In June 1998, the Supreme Court of BC held the federal government
and the United Church of Canada “vicariously liable” for the sexual assaults
committed by a residential school dorm supervisor between 1943 and 1970.
The Canadian Conference of
Catholic Bishops and the United Church have urged the federal government to
take a leadership role in establishing formal talks to find an out-of-court
settlement to the numerous lawsuits related to residential schools.
Finally, another current
example: rape in the military. Recent public debate following public disclosures
of rape in the military seems to be repeating old patterns. Disbelief and
denial are being met with demands for change.
Lieutenant General Bill Leach of
the Canadian Forces told the media he would no longer tolerate the continued
abuse of women in the military. “Times have changed. And attitudes and
behaviour must change. But if attitudes cannot change quickly enough, behaviour
has got to change immediately.”1 Further Maclean’s reports of
July 1 questioned how Leach himself responded to a sexual harassment complaint
he received in 1996.
Many Canadians are now
questioning the validity of a military justice system which reports to the
Minister of National Defence rather than the Attorney General. The fundamental
principle of our judicial system is that the rule of law means that all members
of society can expect the same law, the same potential consequences for
wrongdoing, and the same right to a fair and impartial hearing to establish
innocence or guilt to apply.
What all three of these examples
have in common is that women, immigrants, racial minorities and aboriginal
peoples have historically not been well represented in the legislatures and
other decision-making roles in society. Historically, government
decision-making has been dominated by a narrow segment of the population. Most
legislators are male; wealth, privilege, education and Euro-Canadian ethnicity
still are advantages to getting elected in Canada.
When a minority or disadvantaged
group is culturally different from the larger society, its view and experience
of law and justice will often be different. Our challenge in our daily work is
to use a framework of consistent principles to guide our future decisions.
Today we can discuss and help develop a framework of principles to guide the
decisions that seek to correct past wrongs.
I expect that most of us were
taught to say, “I made a mistake,” when we had done something wrong as a child.
As people elected to serve the public interest, I believe we have a
responsibility to acknowledge wrongdoing when governments have imposed programs
that have harmed first nations, Japanese Canadians, women who have been
systematically intimidated and dominated by sexual violence, people with
Hepatitis C that they have received from tainted blood, Inuit who were relocated
to hostile environments on the Arctic coast and who starved, or the mentally
ill who were forcibly sterilized. We must seek ways to help rectify the damage
done and engage in dialogue with the people affected.
As another principle, we must provide
open and accountable government through such mechanisms as access to
information and protection of privacy legislation, which allows greater
knowledge of government actions and discourages secret files.
Resolving such debates is
complex. Legal, scientific, historical, ethical and financial considerations
all play a role in reaching decisions about governments’ responsibility. If we
were afraid of such difficult decision-making, we would not be in political
1. Maclean’s, July 1,