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When is an apology not an apology?

Thom Barker
Thom Barker - Submitted

Justin Trudeau may go down in history as Prime Minister Apology.

Hot on the heels of apologizing to Newfoundland and Labrador residential schools survivors on Nov. 24, Trudeau stepped up to the podium again Nov. 28 to start making amends to former civil servants victimized by anti-LGBTQ policies of the past.

Canadians are well-known for our apologetic nature. As the late-night TV satirist Stephen Colbert once quipped: “… tonight I am going to say the most Canadian thing I can think of: I am sorry. No, no, more than that, I am sau-ry, which I know in your language means both hello and goodbye.”

Of course, the more you do something, the less it meaningful it becomes and I know a lot of people, particularly white, male, heterosexual people, who do not self-identify as racist, sexist and/or homophobic, who are starting to feel a little bit of apology-fatigue.

Where does it end? Why must we keep paying for the sins of our forefathers? I want to address those questions, but first it is necessary to clarify what these apologies are and what they are not.

A meaningful apology has certain essential elements.

The first is it must address very specific transgressions. Trudeau speaks for the Canadian government, so his apologies must be limited to the wrongdoing of the Canadian government. In both these cases that is what he has done.

The apology to Newfoundland and Labrador residential school survivors was restricted to students from the period after the province joined confederation in 1949.

The LGBTQ apology applied to federal workers and armed forces personnel who were “purged” during the Cold War period between the 1950s and 1990s, the justification for which was “national security.”

The irony here is that firing people for fear they might be open to blackmail by “the enemy” proved the fear gay employees might have felt that they would be fired for being who they were was justified.

The second essential element of an apology is that it must backed up by action. Both the residential schools and LGBTQ apologies are backed up by amends in the form of restitution, $50 million for the former and $100 million for the latter.

Finally, an apology must include a change in the behaviour that created the need for the apology in the first place. It is easy to believe, particularly from the privileged white, male, heterosexual perspective, that this has already been addressed. The residential school system has been dismantled and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is now illegal.

Unfortunately, the legacy of these policies lingers on. The reason we must keep paying for the sins of our forefathers is they are also our sins. Despite official policies and legislation, Indigenous and LGBTQ persons still face more subtle discrimination, not the least of which are socioeconomic disadvantages. 

Where does it end? The only way it ends is if attitudes change. This is going to be very difficult because even as society becomes more inclusive, I see resentment growing over all the apologies and associated tax dollars being spent.

We will have to dig deep and acknowledge our own privilege and culpability to move forward.

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