Matt Gurney: A hundred years from now, who'll apologize to the Uyghurs for Trudeau?

The PM won't lose votes for skipping the genocide vote. But he may lose some sleep.

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By: Matt Gurney

It has been fascinating to watch the reaction to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s profile in non-courage this week, after he and most of his cabinet skipped a vote on a Tory motion seeking to declare China’s brutal campaign against the Uyghur people a genocide. (Marc Garneau, who was probably desperately wishing he was back in low-Earth orbit, showed up to abstain … because that’s a good use of an astronaut.) If there is anything close to a consensus on the matter, it’s that the PM was in a difficult spot and found a way to slither out of it at the cost of some dignity, but no other real loss.

Kaveh Shahrooz, in a piece here at The Line on Thursday, made that case well. He savaged Trudeau for his hypocrisy — “when the chips were down, the [gender-based analysis], the intersectional lens and the feminist foreign policy were tossed aside in favour of appeasing China,” he wrote — but he also noted that the entire affair won’t really hurt the PM. “Sadly, the worst that will happen to Trudeau because of the hypocrisy and incompetence displayed is some angry tweets and a few articles like this one,” said Shahrooz.

Maybe. But maybe not. Shahrooz and others are certainly right that the prime minister won’t pay an electoral price, and probably won’t see his polling waver. But history makes its own judgments. And I suspect this prime minister is more aware of that than most.

It seems a long time ago now, but in his first term, Trudeau made a habit of apologizing. Only rarely for stuff that he was actually himself responsible for — he's kinda averse to doing that. But formal and public apologies for past failures? He was all over those. In 2018, the BBC even ran a piece noting the PM's habit, and asked in the headline, "Does Justin Trudeau apologize too much?"

It's not that there weren't things worth apologizing for. In 2016, he apologized for Canada turning back the Komagata Maru, a ship carrying mostly Sikhs that was then forced to return to India, where 20 of them were killed in a riot. The next year, he apologized to survivors of residential schools in Newfoundland and Labrador, and to LGBT Canadians for discrimination they faced at the hands of the federal government. The next year, Jews and members of the Tsilhqot’in Nation received apologies for historical wrongs inflicted on them. And so on. It was a thing.

A man who so clearly adores taking a stage to shed a few tears while acknowledging wrongs committed by someone else, long ago, probably can’t avoid wondering who, in a hundred years, will be apologizing to Uyghurs for his refusal to clearly state that what is happening to them is a genocide.

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None of this is a knock on apologies. Apologies matter. You can be skeptical about how meaningful they are so long after the fact, and question whether the PM offered them as much out of enjoying the spotlight as any sense of righting historical injustices, while still seeing some value in offering them. Mistakes should be admitted and owned. It's good for you, and good for countries. And if it brings peace to those wronged, or to their descendants, well, hey. It's hard to begrudge them that.

But it still raises fascinating questions about our own conduct today. It's easy to apologize a century after the fact, when public opinion around these historical incidents is so overwhelmingly unanimous that there's no downside. The subjugation of Indigenous peoples and abandonment of Jews to Hitler's Holocaust are easy apologies to make precisely because damn few people would argue today that the choices made and actions taken weren't wrong, and, this is important, wrong even at the time.

When all the injustices the PM has felt moved to apologize for were undertaken, there would have been Canadians arguing that the actions, though perhaps unfortunate, were necessary. Even in service of a greater good! In many cases, bigotry suffices as an explanation, but we do ourselves a disservice if we pretend that the scandals and horrors of our past looked as simple and clearcut to the people at the time as they do decades or centuries later.

This is not to absolve anyone of past sins, far from it. It's simply to note that in precisely the same way we don't hesitate to judge and apologize for the actions of 19th- and 20th-century Canadians, Canadians of the 22nd century won't hesitate to condemn us for what we get wrong. And does anyone doubt that we're getting stuff wrong? Or at least that history will conclude we have?

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The opposition put Trudeau into a tricky spot. The evidence of China's campaign against the Uyghurs is strong and horrifying. The accounts of internment, family separation, mass rapes and “re-education,” and more, bear all the horrible hallmarks of the genocides we have seen before. We know what this is. But any steps or declarations Canada takes or makes alone does indeed risk Chinese retaliation, and the two Michaels are still in their grasp. In a difficult situation, the PM made a difficult choice — a choice he can semi-plausibly justify today. I think he made the wrong choice, but I can understand why he made it.

But this prime minister, better than others, must understand that he doesn't have the luxury of governing only for today. The political pressures and diplomatic complications of this moment will fade into the mists of history, and what will be remembered, not least by the Uyghurs, is the core moral issue — when a major Western country's Parliament was prepared to declare what was being done to them a genocide, the leader of that country, a self-styled progressive, feminist and champion of the vulnerable made a political call ... and skipped the vote.

In the end, it won't matter much to the Uyghurs in China's camps today — as said above, Canada can't make a meaningful difference alone. And Shahrooz and others are right, it's not the sort of thing that a government will lose a vote over.

But this is Justin Trudeau, a man known for his teary apologies for historical wrongs. Though he may not lose votes, perhaps he'll lose some sleep, knowing that what he did this week, despite whatever he is telling himself and may later tell Canadians, simply won't stand the test of time or the judgment of history. The PM who proudly declared that Canada was back was given a chance to put his vote on the right side of history. He didn't show up. And a century from now, someone will probably feel moved to apologize for that. Indeed, it might not take that long.


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