CANADA Column

The politics of apology

In an age of empathy, expressing regret costs nothing and makes people feel better

Bruce Wallace January 19 1998
CANADA Column

The politics of apology

In an age of empathy, expressing regret costs nothing and makes people feel better

Bruce Wallace January 19 1998

The politics of apology

In an age of empathy, expressing regret costs nothing and makes people feel better

Bruce Wallace

Pierre Trudeau was never much inclined to say “sorry” for anything, and the suggestion that a prime minister should apologize for the treacheries of past governments was the kind of phoney political balm he found easy to dismiss. “He knew that historical apologies might make people feel better, but he also believed once you started apologizing for one bad act of history, you’d never stop,” recalls onetime Trudeau aide Tom Axworthy, explaining why his former boss resisted constant appeals for Ottawa to formally apologize to Japanese-Canadians for their internment during the Second World War. “Trudeau was more interested in what you could do for people today. Fixing the past was for historians.”

As usual with Trudeau, beautiful theory. But it is doubtful that his cold, analytical defiance would play well in the gimme-a-hug political culture of the late 1990s, where empathy and symbolic gestures so often substitute for real action.

That partly explains why Jean Chrétien—another prime minister who would rather stonewall than show a soft side by saying “I’m sorry”—was not present when his government issued a formal apology to Canada’s aboriginal peoples last week. Chrétien’s absence was not lost on some chiefs, who grumbled that the apology lacked prime ministerial weight, was weakly worded and was not broad enough. But to those who remember Chrétien’s mulish refusal to apologize for his party’s GST flip-flop, last week’s statement was another sign that, these days, to govern is to know how to show just enough regret.

Clearly, the modern clamor for fixing history is a global phenomenon. In Sri Lanka, Buddhist organizations want to ban Prince Charles from ceremonies marking 50 years of independence unless he apologizes “for all the wrongs done” during British rule. British Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.S. President Bill Clinton, two of the most accomplished empathy politicians of their generation, have recognized the potential value in atoning for history; Blair apologized this year for Britain’s role in the 19th-century Irish famine, while Clinton has kicked around the notion of a formal apology for slavery. The appeal is obvious—regrets for past atrocities cost nothing on their own, they can make people feel better and, best of all, they are other people’s mistakes you are apologizing for. For Brian Mulroney, issuing a formal apology to JapaneseCanadians was a no-brainer.

And yet to have any political value, the apology has to be seen as sincere (after trying to avoid the arm of the law for years, it is doubtful Alan Eagleson won much sympathy with his mumbled mea culpa in a Toronto courtroom last week). “Apologies come out of the crisis management literature of the 1980s,” says pollster Frank Graves of the Ottawa firm EKOS. “Until then, the practice had been to stonewall, so for a while, ’fessing up responsibility was a bit of a novelty. But it’s no longer fresh, and people judge you on your sincerity.” That’s why Allan Rock’s first, churlish apology last year to Mulroney over the Airbus affair was not convincing. Rock had to repeat it, bending his knees just a bit deeper. When Rock took the stage to express sorrow last fall for the federal government’s role in the tainted blood scandal, the response from the victims was: fine, but how much money will you ante up to compensate us for your mistake?

With the natives, Chrétien’s inherent reluctance to offer an apology was overcome by Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine’s argument that it would clear the air in a suspicious relationship. The fact that Fontaine had to convince the Liberals on the merits—and that it took months of bureaucratic anguish to get the wording right—hardly suggests that Ottawa’s “deeply sorry”, came straight from the heart. If the baggage of history suddenly ceases to obstruct progress in the present, then confessional politics will show some real value. Otherwise, apologizing for history may just fade out of fashion.