LGBT, Indigenous folk among those receiving governments’ remorse in Canada, but to uncertain ends…
It’s the original Canadian meme. The low-hanging fruit of comics around the globe. A badge Canadians wear both begrudgingly and with honour. The apology.
Sorry, I should say the Canadian apology.
There are some entertaining theories on how and when our collective stereotype for being polite and conflict-averse begin. Some point to our country’s mild-mannered British roots. Others like to think we leaned into the perception as our neighbours to the south became less and less likely to apologize for, well, just about anything.
Whatever its origins, we certainly seem to be living up to the ideal — at least in the political realm.
Take, for instance, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe’s apology earlier this month for the province’s role in the Sixties Scoop.
The mea culpa was certainly welcomed by some, especially those who rightly see this as an opportunity for Canadians to learn more about the Sixties Scoop — a time that saw tens of thousands of Indigenous children across Canada taken from their families between the 1960s and the 1980s. The consequences of which have severely damaged Indigenous language, culture and communities in the country.
Others, however, saw Premier Moe’s apology for little more than political grandstanding.
So what, then, goes into a sincere political apology? Or do “sincere” and “political” cancel each other out?
The good news is that we have a lot of examples to draw from. Since taking office in 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made five official apologies for some of the darker moments in Canada’s history. From turning away refugee ships to firing LGBTQ government and military workers, PM Trudeau is no stranger to the Canadian sorry.
Opponents of the Prime Minister like to rib him for this, and the for fact that his father, two-time Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, dismissed calls to issue government apologies — famously quoted saying, “It is our purpose to be just in our time.” Yet political apologies are far from a partisan trend.
Conservative former Prime Minister Stephen Harper made three apologies during his time in office — for residential schools, the Chinese head tax and the forced relocation of Inuit communities. Provincially, Liberal, NDP and Conservative premiers have all made formal apologies in the past few years.
So now that we’ve established government apologies aren’t a tool of the left or the right (though, let’s be fair — the left makes more of them), let’s talk about effectiveness.
And to do that, we can start by thinking about the last time time you said “sorry.” There’s a good chance it was today.
If you’re a transit user, it was likely on your way to or from work — bumping into someone on a crowded streetcar, bus or subway. Maybe it was even earlier than that, apologizing to a partner for a jumping into the shower first, or a roommate for finishing off the milk.
Now think about the last time you were apologised to.
It’s probably a bit harder to remember, with more serious moments jumping to mind. A fight, a disagreement, a big mistake that hurt you. We often don’t internalize pleas for forgiveness because usually they aren’t really about us. An apology usually communicates more about the person’s intentions then it does about the receiver’s pain.
And therein lies the problem.
When a friend or co-worker apologies, it’s because they want to do better. With governments, that get’s a bit tricky.
To start, the marginalized communities at the center of these apologies — LGBTQ folks, Indigenous people, Jewish and Asian immigrants — are still marginalized in Canada, with progress from governments on these files slow.
Since his 2008 apology to residential school survivors, Stephen Harper’s record on Indigenous issues has been widely-criticized. Prime Minister Trudeau’s 2017 apology to those same Indigenous communities certainly isn’t giving him any inroads with the ongoing Native-led protests of a planned pipeline through B.C.’s north. Similarly, the Liberal leader’s apology to LGBTQ workers purged from public service is being weighed against the now four-year wait on a campaign promise to remove the gay blood donation ban in Canada.
What does make the LGBTQ purge apology significant, however, is that it came with a price-tag. $110 million was earmarked to compensate LGBT civil servants whose careers were sidelined. The apology had a real, tangible impact on the lives of the people the apology was meant for, and that’s not to be discounted.
What’s less certain is the shelf life of these sorry-spotlights. The second reason why political apologies don’t stack up is that governments change. You could have a wide-eyed and earnest leader one day — apologizing for misgivings of the past and pledging to do better — and then a few months later a new team comes in, rearranging the furniture and adopting a different tune.
Case in point, when Ontario’s former Premier Kathleen Wynne apologized to Indigenous communities for that province’s role in residential schools and colonial violence, she turned the “Aboriginal Affairs” ministry into the community preferred “Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation”— committing $250 million towards said reconciliation. Jump to a little over a year later and Ontario’s current Premier Doug Ford folded that ministry into not one but two others (also looking after the province’s energy, mines and Northern development) and cancelled plans to bring more Indigenous curriculum into Ontario’s classroom.
This is a sad, but frequent, phenomenon. Winds of change blow, politicians create and cancel (or in some cases, set a torch to) the work done by previous governments. Apologies that once sounded like the beginning of a new era now seem both distant and fleeting.
That may sound unfair to the families and communities owed these apologies, and that’s because it is. Sorry about it.
Kevin Hurren is a former speechwriter for Ontario’s 25th Premier Kathleen Wynne, as well as a senior communications advisor for members of her cabinet. He is also former Chair of the Ontario Public Service Pride Network and has worked with LGBT political campaigns. Currently he’s a freelance writer and consultant based in Toronto’s gay village.