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‘A turning point’: Power of apology lies in building the future, not tearing down the past

The word “sorry” was spoken 13 times in the course of 20 minutes. The mistreatment was said to be “our collective shame.” It was a brutal account of harm, cruelty and wrongdoing.

“To all the LGBTQ2 people across this country who we have harmed in countless ways, we are sorry,” Justin Trudeau said, standing in the prime minister’s spot in the House of Commons on Tuesday, apologizing for the federal government’s mistreatment of public servants, police officers and members of the military.

“We betrayed you, and we are so sorry.”

It was the third apology for Trudeau as prime minister, following his apology in May 2016 for the Komagata Maru and last Friday for the residential schools in Newfoundland and Labrador. An apology for turning away Jewish refugees during the Second World War will be next.

Those follow Stephen Harper’s apologies for both residential schools and the Chinese head tax, which followed Brian Mulroney’s apology for the internment of Japanese-Canadians.

To those could be added the official government of Canada apologies issued to Maher Arar, Omar Khadr, Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad El Maati and Muayyed Nureddin, five Canadians tortured abroad in the troubled years after 9/11.

In this case, Trudeau said, it was his hope that “we will look back on today as a turning point.”

If we do so, it will be because a national apology is ideally not about tearing down the past or flattering the present, but about building a better nation for the future — as painful, perhaps even tiring, as it might be to dwell on the shameful actions, sometimes seemingly countless, in our collective past.

Trudeau makes LBGT apology1:06

Liberals ‘only see blemishes’

Canada’s sesquicentennial has been a year for fretful introspection. And a certain fatigue was palpable this month when the Conservative Party emailed its supporters to ask, “Are you tired of people apologizing for our country’s rich history?”

Speaking to the United Nations General Assembly this fall, Trudeau dwelled upon the fact that Canada is imperfect. The Conservative Party was apparently unimpressed.

“The Liberals only see blemishes in our past, and not the great country that is constantly bettering itself for future generations,” the Conservative Party explained. “We Conservatives know that Canada is something to be proud of.”

To wit, Conservative supporters were directed to something Andrew Scheer had said on the 150th anniversary of Parliament.

“To those who deny we have anything to be proud of as a country, I would pose a simple question: Where else would you have rather lived for the last 150 years?” Scheer asked.

Thing is, for various people at various points in the history of Canada this has not been a great place to live — a reality Scheer himself acknowledged in the very same speech when he said we must admit our mistakes and “apologize when necessary,” while noting Stephen Harper’s apology for residential schools.

On Tuesday, Scheer stood and followed Trudeau’s apology with his own regrets.

Maybe it could have been worse somewhere else, but for many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Canadians, this country has been a source of pain.

‘Make sure we don’t repeat these mistakes’

Still, the Conservative leader might have put his finger on something.

Scheer’s speech on the anniversary of Parliament followed a particular summer of wrestling with the meaning of Canada’s sesquicentennial and debating whether John A. Macdonald’s name should be removed from schools.

“It is fashionable today to look down at the past,” he said.

To that extent, his argument might be a narrow one: that the Canadian project is not worthy of complete and total condemnation. Or that too much time and energy has been invested lately in dwelling upon those blemishes.

Trudeau apologizes to residential school survivors in Newfoundland and Labrador7:25

Trudeau would likely agree that it’s not all bad: on Canada Day, for instance, he declared that this was the “best country on Earth.”

But the Trudeau government might have also now shown itself to be more inclined to apologize than any of its predecessors.

“The apologies for things past are important to make sure that we actually understand and know and share and don’t repeat those mistakes,” Trudeau said at an event on Wednesday, reflecting on his father’s reluctance to offer official apologies.

The rabid patriot might wish there was more attention afforded to the better moments of our history.

The cynic might see political interest in wanting to be seen apologizing.

The social critic might see some new trend toward self-criticism. (Jean-Marc Coicaud, a scholar, has linked the modern phenomenon of state apologies, a trend that expands well beyond Canada, to the expansion and acceptance of human rights.)

But, regardless, an apology can still matter to those who were wronged.

Why does that matter to the country?

The good in apologizing

With words of official recognition, individuals and communities might feel better included. In actions, justice might be done, in the form of compensation or corrected historical records. 

In the prominent mention of failure and in dwelling on that failure, new focus and attention can be given to both the systemic problems we need to address and the values we want to uphold.

At some point, the apologies might seem excessive. But it might be worth erring on the side of apologizing too often than not enough.

No U.S. administration, for instance, has ever apologized for slavery or Jim Crow. By comparison, the Canadian approach might seem more just. Being able to reckon with history and its impact on the present might be the mark of a mature, or at least lucky, nation.

But in the best case, these apologies would ultimately move governments and politicians to act to reduce the possibility of future apologies — not simply by avoiding the exact same mistakes, but by reflecting upon what might look terrible 50 or 100 years from now.

Think of inaction on climate change, or the use of solitary confinement in prisons, the treatment of those with drug addictions, the suspension of civil rights or how we support the elderly, the poor or refugees.

If, 50 years from now, policies that discriminate against LGBT individuals are in place, Tuesday’s apology might be diminished. And if the welfare of Indigenous Canadians has not significantly improved, there will likely be no interest in anyone’s apology.

Every apology, from the floor of the House of Commons to the playgrounds at recess, should be two things: a reckoning with what’s been done and an implicit, but meaningful, promise to do better in the future.

CBC | Politics News