What does an apology really mean?

Canadians love to apologize; we are known internationally for it. We say we are sorry when we reach out to open a door at the same time as someone else, when we accidentally brush up against a stranger in a lineup, when we disagree with someone. These tend to be pretty superficial apologies for pretty minor transgressions. Really, they are more a way of connecting briefly with someone with whom we have had an unexpected encounter.

We now live in an era when politicians and other leaders regularly offer their versions of apologies for past wrongs and, I have to admit, I have become a bit cynical about their value. After all, what does an apology mean if it is not accompanied by a visible change in direction to ensure that the past bad behaviour won’t be repeated?  Nor do I think the “I am sorry if what I said/did was upsetting to you but I don’t think I really did anything wrong” pseudo-apology does the trick.

“I’m so extremely sorry”

Lucy Maude Montgomery captured the essence of the theatrical apology in her book Anne of Green Gables. The ever-outspoken Anne Shirley had offended a woman in the farming community where she lived and been told she must apologize. She then issues a dramatic apology, in which she says, in part:

“I am so extremely sorry. I could never express all my sorrow, no, not if I used up a whole dictionary. . . I’m a dreadfully wicked and ungrateful girl, and I deserve to be punished and cast out by respectable people forever. . . Please, please forgive me. If you refuse, it will be a lifelong sorrow on a poor little orphan girl.”

Extremely satisfied with herself, Anne then muses: “I apologized pretty well, didn’t I? I thought since I had to do it I might as well do it thoroughly.”

Public apologies

Over the past few years, we have been treated to individual men apologizing – never as thoroughly as did Anne – for sexually assaulting and harassing women and to government leaders apologizing for past wrongs. Canadian Prime Ministers have become proficient apologizers: for the internment of Japanese Canadians during WWII (Mulroney, 1988), for the Chinese head tax (Harper, 2006) to residential school survivors (Harper, 2008 and Trudeau, 2017) and to the LGBTQ community (Trudeau, 2017), to name just a few.

PMs have not always been so apologetic. In 1984, when responding to criticism for not having apologized for the internment of Japanese Canadians, Pierre Trudeau said:

“I do not think it is the purpose of a government to right the past. It cannot rewrite history. It is our purpose to be just in our time.”

His son, Canada’s current PM, takes a different view:

“Apologies for things past are important to make sure that we actually understand and know and share and don’t repeat those mistakes.”

“It touched my heart”

As I read about the recent acknowledgement by the Thunder Bay Police Services Board (PSB), I found myself thinking that the truth about apologies likely lies somewhere between the opinions of the two generations of Trudeau Prime Ministers.

The Thunder Bay police force, rightly, has been under close scrutiny for its racist treatment of Indigenous members of the community. A report written by Senator Murray Sinclair and issued by the Ontario Civilian Police Commission found that the PSB has failed the Indigenous community, as did a report by Independent Police Review Director Gerry McNeilly.

On January 13th, the PSB acknowledged that systemic racism exists in the police force and apologized to the Indigenous community during a reconciliation circle.

The reaction from members of the Indigenous community who participated in the event was largely positive:

“It just touched my heart because it has been a long time coming. The systemic racism has been going on for a long time and the acknowledgement, I just feel it in my heart for the people, all of us, who have gone through racism in the city and elsewhere.”

“Everything has a new beginning. Hopefully, they [the PSB] find the right path.”

Making it right

The Thunder Bay apology is not perfect. Notably, the mayor chose not to attend last weekend’s reconciliation circle, However, the PSB is taking steps to ensure its apology is more than words: its meetings will now be open to the public and its members will be required to complete both Indigenous cultural and governance training before they receive voting rights. Another circle is planned so members of the community can share their experiences with the Thunder Bay police.

As Thomas Lockwood, administrator of the PSB said:

“I am not so naïve to think we are going to do this in a week or a month or a year, but it is a start. We are going to make mistakes. But we are going to try.”

Renu Mandhane, Ontario’s Chief Commissioner of Human Rights, who has played a critical role in exposing the racism and other problems with the Thunder Bay police, tweeted:

“Apologies can fill people with hope when there was despair. They can heal. I’m always struck by how many people who experience discrimination simply want an apology and a genuine commitment. They don’t want someone else to experience the same thing.”

Perhaps this is such a moment of hope for Thunder Bay and a moment of inspiration for other communities.

One thought on “What does an apology really mean?

  1. “It touched my heart” was, I thought when I first read the heading, a comment by PSB member or other official person who finally heard, really took in, the pain caused indigenous people by our discrimination against them. How wonderful! I thought. But it turned out that no, it was a member of the indigenous community who was touched by the apology and had hope for a new beginning. I think, though I don’t usually talk about heart stuff, that the hearts of the members of the oppressing group also need touching, need touching even more. We need to take in deeply and fully how racism is a form of dehumanizing the Other, a hardening of our hearts against against their humanity and the suffering we so callously or intentionally cause them, ranging from the horrors of wanton raping and killing and systematic impoverishment, to social segregation and exclusion in overt and subtler but still painful ways we have of not really seeing individuals, meeting their eyes or nodding a simple hello when passing in the street as we might do with other strangers.

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