Anyone who has experience dealing with university bureaucracies knows that people in high positions in academia are usually spineless wimps. An egregious example is University of Manitoba President David Bernard, who has apologized to Indian students for abuses they suffered in Indian residential schools--even though the university had nothing to do with the residential schools. Jonathan Kay of the Canadian newspaper National Post offered an excellent commentary on October 27, 2011 (published as an editorial titled U Manitoba's guilty conscience in the October 28 print edition):
Sometimes, we hyper-polite Canadians just can’t resist playing to stereotype — like the one that says we’re always apologizing, even for things that aren’t our fault. Witness the University of Manitoba, whose President, David Barnard, has formally apologized to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for his institution’s role in Canada’s residential school system.
According to the Winnipeg Free Press, this “is believed to be the first time a Canadian university has apologized for having a role in that dark chapter in the country’s history.” That shouldn’t surprise us — because Canadian universities didn’t have any “role” to apologize for: This country’s post-secondary institutions neither funded nor operated Indian residential schools. Those roles were filled by the government and by churches.
Nevertheless, “we [the university community] have educated the people who became clergy and teachers and politicians and became involved in the [residential-school system],” Mr. Barnard told the media this week. And then, in his formal statement on Thursday, he added: “Our institution failed to recognize or challenge the forced assimilation of Aboriginal peoples and the subsequent loss of their language, culture and traditions. That was a grave mistake. It is our responsibility. We are sorry.”
Mr. Barnard’s gesture takes political correctness and White guilt into the realm of farce. Syrian dictator Bashar Assad studied at the St. Mary’s group of teaching hospitals in London, England — yet we are unaware of that institution’s president apologizing for this year’s brutal crackdown against Syrian dissidents. There is not a large university in the world whose graduates do not include criminals and bigots. Are they all expected to apologize for the misdeeds of their students? What comes next for U Manitoba, we wonder? Will Mr. Barnard apologize to the residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki for the Manhattan Project contributions of University of Manitoba alumnus Louis Alexander Slotin (1910-1946)?
Many aspects of the residential-school system were indeed appalling: the forced separation of child from parent, episodes of brutal corporal punishment and sex abuse, untreated diseases. Yet many graduates of residential schools never had these experiences, and speak fondly of their time there — or at least acknowledge the good intentions of most instructors, and the decent education they received. These latter aspects of residential schools have become taboo to discuss: The official story now has become that the entire system was a sort of concentration camp staffed by cackling Gestapo. As a result, institutions such as the University of Manitoba have been encouraged to view themselves, ludicrously, as Canada’s answer to IG Farben.
When pressed for details about what role the university had in residential schools, Mr. Barnard was vague. The university president couldn’t even tell reporters for certain whether any current U Manitoba professor had ever taught any student who was involved in any way with a residential school. “We’re focused on moving forward,” he said.
But he’s not moving forward: The act of apologizing for something done by neither Mr. Barnard, nor by any of his colleagues, nor even by the university itself, is inherently backward-looking. It’s worse than backward-looking, in fact: The President is actively fetishizing the past, looking for guilt where none fairly exists.
What’s worse, these apologies never really please anybody — they just invite more complaints and demands.
Four years ago, for instance, an open letter of apology appeared in Quebec’s francophone newspapers, signed by the Archbishop of Quebec City, Marc Cardinal Ouellet. “I recognize that the narrow attitudes of certain Catholics, prior to 1960, favoured anti-Semitism, racism, indifference toward First Nations and discrimination against women and homosexuals,” he declared. “I also recognize that abuses of power and cover-ups have, for many, tarnished the image of the clergy … Youngsters were subject to sexual aggression by priests and religious figures, causing great injury and trauma which have broken their lives. These scandals have shaken popular confidence toward religious authorities and we understand this.”
Perhaps the Archbishop thought this would please the Catholic Church’s critics. Instead, as George Jonas noted at the time in these pages, the letter set off what the CBC described as “a storm of criticism from gay groups to women’s organizations,” which considered the apology insincere.
There always is something self-serving and posturing about such generations-late apologies: They purport to increase the moral bona fides of the person offering contrition, but on someone else’s moral dime. “Not being a Catholic, or even religious, it’s certainly not for me to raise questions about anything a leading churchman might say, but it seems to me that expressing contrition for what one didn’t do is an unauthorized claim for a reward to which one isn’t entitled,” Mr. Jonas wrote in 2007. “It’s charging someone else’s account to derive a benefit for oneself. It’s grandchildren sauntering into history’s apothecary to buy a bottle of forgiveness, saying: ‘charge it to our grandfather.’ Sorry, but grandfather may not acknowledge the debt. (Mine certainly wouldn’t.) One can meaningfully apologize only for oneself, whether one is a person, a nation or a generation.”
If Mr. Barnard has done some nasty thing personally, out with it. But since, to our knowledge, he hasn’t, he should keep his all-too-Canadian, all-too-guilty apologies to himself. They do nothing to honour his school, or remedy the past historical wrongs with which his university is only obliquely connected.
Go here to see the transcript of Dr. Bernard's apology, and here for a question and answer session between Dr. Bernard and Kathryn Blaze Carlson of the National Post.
I've already made my position on such things clear in my posts Identificational Repentance and Grovelling Christianity. I recently sent a long-overdue email (which may be the basis of a future post) to certain "journalists" and Canadian government leaders setting the record straight on the