The Windrush Generation: RECONCILIATION AND WHEN GOVERNMENTS SAY SORRY
It’s often remarked, “It’s not hard to say sorry” yet the longstanding reluctance of many governments of former British colonies to say sorry as nations for the damage done to their most vulnerable people has long shown otherwise. Such a fact needs be acknowledged alongside the reality that where prior generations failed, more recent ones have indeed made good and sincere inroads in attempting to right wrongs.
That’s why the British government’s recent reckoning with the Windrush Generation scandal is being observed closely, to not only see justice sought for the Windrush Generation, but to see what nations who share a British heritage and history of government abuse have done to pursue reconciliation.
So how does the treatment of the Windrush apology and redress compare to similar examples seen in Australia and Canada? And what does it really mean to say sorry to victims of government abuse? Let’s look now.
THE WINDRUSH SCANDAL
The Windrush story has been covered extensively locally. But if anyone somehow missed it (or a reader abroad is yet to hear about it) the scandal concerns the UK government’s wrongful detainment, and unlawful denial of legal rights, and ultimately deportation, of individuals (especially from the Caribbean) prior to
1973, now known as the Windrush Generation.
Not only had many of those affected legally travelled from Caribbean nations to the UK to start a new life after World War II, but many had in fact been born British subjects.
An apology has now been issued, by then-UK interior minister Amber Rudd in April of this year, and while each apology is unique and must be treated as such, there is a difference in approach to apologies depending on which former British nation it was made in. In turn, the expectation must always be that an apology comes with a promise of redress to right a wrong — and to be more than words alone, however meaningful they may be.
AUSTRALIA SAYS SORRY, SEEKS TO START ANEW
On February 13, 2008 the prime minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd, made an official apology to the Stolen Generation — Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children forcibly removed from their parents between 1910 and 1970 by Australian federal and state governments. This was one of the landmark acts of his newly elected government.
Rudd’s apology statement saw him say sorry six times. He indicated after that the apology wasn’t just overdue, but a matter of urgency. In saying sorry soon after taking office (being officially sworn in in December 2007) the Rudd government looked to close one chapter of indigenous relations symbolically, so it could have a ‘new start’ in its policy-based programmes.
One such programme is the Closing the Gap (CTG) initiative — aimed at reducing the gap between quality of life outcomes of indigenous Australians and non-indigenous Australians — devised by the the Council of Australian Governments (COAG). For the first time in seven years, as of 2018, COAG is on track to meeting three of the seven CTG targets. Arguably not enough meaningful progress, but indeed some, given the big goals of CTG.
CANADA AND MULTIPLE APOLOGIES
2008 was also a notable year for reconciliation in Canada. In June of that year, Prime Minister Stephen Harper made an official apology to students of Indian residential schools, for the historical practice of numerous abuses, including forcibly removing Indian children from their own families, and seeking to forcibly assimilate them into the ‘dominant’ Canadian culture.
Canada’s experience here is particularly significant, not only for current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s rejection of a dominant Canadian culture (famously saying, ‘‘There is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada”), but also the numerous official apologies he’s given as prime minister, having issued four since coming to office in November 2015.
Supporters claim this is a sign of a truly progressive leader but critics hold that the risk of numerous apologies so soon is they lose their significance, and do more harm than good because a fair period of time for a nation’s proper recognition of, and reconciliation with, history is lost.
THE CHALLENGE OF DEFINING PROGRESS BEFORE PROGRESSING IT
Certainly, in numerous nations the failures of government to properly reconcile with history have been immense, and there remains much work to be done, including sober recognition that the progress so far has simply not been enough.
Yet to truly understand where progress can be made, the many shades of grey in identifying the right path forward also needs to be acknowledged. It means those seeking to truly see progress made must avoid the easy temptation of defeatism, and needless derision of those trying to pursue sincere restitution.
There can be no doubt these issues are not easy, especially because it can remain a challenge to find common ground that’s agreeable to all parties when it comes to reconciliation and restitution. The old adage ‘honourable people can differ’ can apply, as even all stakeholders working in good faith (whether victims of wrongs done or officials who now lead a government that inherited wrongs done) may find a shared vision hard to identify, and so progress stalls.
It’s also true that there are many people across all areas of society (including, most commendably, those who’ve been victims) that most of all just aspire to work in good faith to bring about greater fairness and a future that sees all people of a nation progress.
Ultimately, reconciliation requires all parties to progress, and that means also ensuring all parties feel encouraged by the potential to progress. In the UK and elsewhere, that’s the challenge ahead.
WHAT NOW FOR WINDRUSH RECONCILIATION?
Words are good, and their importance in such matters as these shouldn’t be understated.
Even if restitution and remedy is pursued for victims of government abuse, in the absence of any expression of regret there is not only an inability for wounds to heal, but for a nation to move forward.
Those rare few at the extreme outliers of political debate who can find no meaning in saying sorry to others for harm done, surely have something to be sorry for. Yet words alone are simply not enough. The real value of an apology surely comes not with the act, but with the undertaking that it is the beginning of a new direction.
For the British government, just saying sorry for what happened to the Windrush Generation is not enough, but it now has a chance to work for real progress to be made, with meaningful action to tend to the open wounds. In the Caribbean, the UK and around the globe, many will be watching this process closely.
Sajid Javid, UK home secretary, apologised to 18 out of 11,800 people whose cases have been reviewed so far to identify if they had been wrongfully detained or removed from the UK © Reuters
Protestors in the UK demonstrating against the Home Department’s treatment of the Windrush Generation