Language teachers often joke that one of the first phrases English people ask to be taught and translated is, “I’m sorry.” If this statement sounds apocryphal, I am, well, sorry. But I am English, of course, which explains so much. But having spent half of my life in Canada, it seems to me that it’s Canadians who have the virtual monopoly on apologizing, especially if they’re politicians.
Justin Trudeau’s “Sorry Elbow” tour is still in process, and seems about as convincing as the apparent agony of New Democrat MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau and the self-righteous anger of party leader Tom Mulcair and Conservative MP Peter Van Loan. (For the uninitiated, in forcibly moving Tory whip Gord Brown, Trudeau elbowed Brosseau in the chest, leading her to leave the chamber.) Justin is sorry that it all went wrong, that it backfired, that he is now cast as a perpetrator rather than a saviour. But at least he was quick in his contrition and frequent in its repetitions.
His fellow parliamentarian Kellie Leitch took a little longer to toss around a mea culpa — a full six months in fact. The former minister in Stephen Harper’s government went on CBC television to discuss how during the election campaign the Conservatives had announced a tip line where people could report what they described as barbaric cultural practices. In effect, shorthand for phoned-in Islamophobia.
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Leitch, the MP for Simcoe-Grey, is a medical doctor and an educated woman, so pleading ignorance didn’t excuse this particular politician. "I've had a lot of time to think about this since the campaign took place,” she said, “and if I could go back in time, which I can't, I would change things." And then she teared up.
Sorry, Kellie, but I didn’t buy it for a moment, and I think most people agree with me. That she had recently announced her intention to run for party leadership, and by extension prime minister, was obviously relevant to the change of heart and the entire episode seemed manipulative and cosmetic. A policy decision is not emotional, a failed electoral ploy is not the reason for tears.
Which brings us back to Trudeau. Just a few days before he decided to rewrite parliamentary procedure, the prime minister had made a formal apology to the Sikh community over the Komagata Maru incident in 1914, when a boatload of refugees from India was turned away and some of the passengers eventually died. It wasn’t the first of these official statements and won’t be the last. Because they are decades, and sometimes generations, after the event, and prepared and edited, doubters questions their validity and value.
I think they’re wrong. Apologies don’t expunge crime, sin or wrongdoing, but they do acknowledge harm caused and hurt done and that matters to victims. To refuse to admit to a government failing is at best to ignore and at worst deny the pain of a person or a people. It’s not about tears and ersatz grief, but an attempt to reboot equity.
A genuine act of apology involves full admission of guilt, sorrow for the crime or failing, and fitting compensation, or even punishment. Words of sorrow are not supposed to be some sort of get-out-of-jail-free card — even literally so in some cases — and if that is their purpose they make matters worse and not better.
I’ve spent more than two years apologizing to the LGBTQ community for my outspoken opposition to equal marriage and full equality. I may never have hated, but I did enable hatred and could be flippant, dismissive and carelessly cruel. My very public reversal of view cost me half of my career and income, so I suppose I’ve paid a price. I’ve also tried to put matters right with my writing and speaking and have experienced a great deal of abuse because of it. That’s a good and not a bad thing — penance is not only necessary in itself, but a prerequisite for absolution.
The forgiveness I’ve experienced has been immensely liberating, and profoundly moving, but there are always those who refuse to accept change and define their credibility by cynicism. Let’s be candid here: modern society has often made a fetish out of pain and those who have suffered the least are often the last to forgive. Be that as it may, the human condition is imperfect. We get things wrong, and the act of apology makes us, and those around us, better and bigger. A political apology can change a vote, a forced apology can change opinion, but a genuine and visceral apology can change the world. We can surely all be up to our elbows in that one.
Author and columnist Michael Coren's new book is Epiphany: A Christian's Change of Heart & Mind over Same-Sex Marriage.