Is Saying Sorry Enough?

An apology can be a very personal act but it also can take immense proportions as government's apologize for large-scale wrongs against ethnic communities. These apologies are usually scripted formal affairs with monetary reparations. In that spirit, the Canadian government has apologized for the Chinese Head Tax, the Japanese-Canadian internment and the Aboriginal Residential Schools.

These large-scale apologies or collective apologies have a dual purpose: healing within the wronged community and increased political support for the apologizer. To accurately fulfill both of these purposes requires some astute government decision making. The government must decide the form of the apology, the content, and the extent. Collective apologies are, therefore, not for the faint-hearted.

Typically, formal collective apologies are backed by monetary reparations. All three Canadian government apologies discussed in the first paragraph of this post are such examples. There are times, however, where the act of apology with some reparations is deemed inadequate as in the case of the Aboriginal residential schools. 

The residential schools were conceived and implemented through systemic discriminatory government policy and legislation over decades. Once taken from their families, many Aboriginal children were abused and taught self-loathing and hatred for their culture. This was a case where an apology was not enough and neither was the financial reparation offered by the government.

After years of protracted legal negotiations, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, presently hearing evidence in Halifax, was created to build an accurate and complete public account of the event, to determine the reason for it, and to recommend further appropriate commemorations of the event. The Commission has not been without its troubles: Justice LaForme resigned as a commissioner in 2008 over the proper emphasis on "truth" or "reconciliation." Nor has it been without controversy, as the University of Manitoba recently apologized at the commission for educating and mentoring the authority figures involved in the schools such as clergy, teachers, and politicians.

Despite the difficulties in taking collective responsibility and the struggles encountered in striking the right balance between apology and reparation, Canada's culture of redress is an international instruction on how to say "I am sorry" and we, collectively, should not be sorry for that.