The Power of Apologies

In two previous postings, It Never Hurts To Say You're Sorry and Is Saying Sorry Enough, I discussed the power of apologies from a child's first lesson in contrition to Bill Clinton's successful reincarnation as a two-term President. I also touched upon the codified version of apology, as remorse, in the Criminal Code the politicized collective apologies for large-scale human rights violations.

I revisit this issue with yesterday's 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbour and a Globe and Mail article entitled After Japan Says Sorry, A look At 5 Powerful Apologies In History. The article identifies these apologies under 5 headings with accompanying photographs. The first heading refers to the Holocaust with the 2008 visit of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to the Israeli Knesset or Parliament where she said:

"The Holocaust fills us with shame. I bow my head before the survivors and I bow my head before you in tribute to the fact that you were able to survive."

The speech did not go without controversy as some members of the Knesset boycotted the speech, which was given in German.

The next apology was from the UK Prime Minister Cameron to Northern Ireland for the 1972 Bloody Sunday Massacre. This 2010 apology, given after the release of the Saville Report into the massacre, called the action of UK military as "unjustified and unjustifiable." unfortunately, the hyperlinks to the report are now disabled.

The next collective apology is truly a global one:apologies to the indigineous peoples of Australia and Canada by the respective governments. As discussed in my previous blogs, the formal and public apology given to the Aboriginals of Canada by Stephen Harper was definitely Canada's most powerful, and long-awaited, apology. Certainly, this apology, even three years later, has continues with the inquiry of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

The next apology feels both too late and too premature: the Pope's apology on behalf of the Catholic Church for the widespread sexual and physical abuses of children as almost daily new allegations of coverups of the abuse surface.

The final apology listed is for Apartheid with De Klerk's 1993 admission, which fell short of a full apology. 

This brings us back to Pearl Harbour and Japan. Today, the Japanese government apologized for the mistreatment of Canadian prisoners of war during World War II. Canada's Veteran Affairs Minister, Steven Blaney, who attended the formal apology in Japan, eloquently reminds us of the power of an apology when he stated:

This important gesture is a crucial step in ongoing reconciliation and a significant milestone in the lives of all prisoners of war...It acknowledges their suffering while honouring their sacrifices and courage...Today's apology will help in healing as our two great countries move forward

Thus, the power of an apology holds the power to heal, either when uttered in the privacy of a relationship or when proclaimed in the highest political institutions, and this is the best reason to for saying "sorry."

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.