A valuable parental lesson is that it never hurts to say you're sorry. But here in Vancouver, Canada, the provincial government has found there can be a backlash from trying to use contriteness to win over voters; in this instance, ethnic Asian voters.

The governing BC (British Columbia) Liberal party is down in the polls ahead of the May 14 election. In response, the party has spent millions on advertising in an attempt to win back voters deserting the centre-right incumbents for their centre-left New Democrat Party rivals.

Part of the plan involved a "multicultural strategy" running to 17 pages long and detailing how "quick wins" could be had by targeting Chinese and South Asian communities.

According to activist Sidney Ming Fai Chow Tan, the most insulting proposal was a plan to woo ethnic voters by apologising for past government policies.

"Don't pander to me by saying, 'Hey … we are going to apologise.' Take your apology and shove it where the sun don't shine," says Tan, who is president of the Head Tax Families Society of Canada.

South Asians were to be apologised to over the Komagata Maru incident of 1914. The Komagata Maru, a ship carrying 376 passengers from Punjab, India, had sailed from Hong Kong to Shanghai before berthing in Vancouver. However, on arrival passengers were not allowed to disembark and the ship was forcibly turned back. On reaching Calcutta, a riot broke out with the Indian authorities and 19 passengers were killed.

Chinese-Canadians, meanwhile, were to receive an apology from Premier Christy Clark over the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923, through which the federal government excluded all but a few Chinese from coming into the country. Even before that, there had been a head tax on Chinese arrivals: from C$50 per person in 1885, it had risen to C$500 (at which level it would remain) by 1903, the equivalent of two years' wages at the time. Between 1923 and 1947, when the act was repealed and the tax dissolved, fewer than 50 Chinese were allowed into Canada.

After the strategy document had come to light, Clark - whose party includes two offspring of head-tax payers - said: "It needs to be an absolutely genuine apology and if the discussion about all the rest of this [memo controversy] is going to taint that, I say we wait."

But the damage was done. The premier's deputy chief of staff was forced to resign and multiculturalism minister John Yap, who was born in Singapore, stood down, although he claimed never to have seen the document.

In Vancouver, it seems, sorry means having to apologise for apologies.