Apology’s Worth It: How Canada Profits from Apology

Cathy Busby, We Are Sorry, detail; fabric panel, 610 cm x 1402 cm; Sorry (Stephen Harper), Sorry (Kevin Rudd), Sorry series inkjet prints, each 112 x 163 cm, Winnipeg Art Gallery, 2010 Cathy Busby. We Are Sorry, detail; fabric panel, 610 cm x 1402 cm; Sorry (Stephen Harper), Sorry (Kevin Rudd), Sorry series inkjet prints, each 112 x 163 cm, Winnipeg Art Gallery, 2010


We live in an “Age of Apology“. In a way that was unimaginable during the Cold War, “sorry” is now a primary element of intra-state politics. Some label the post-Cold War shift out of realpolitik as an indication of “the new international morality,” but apology is also a means for Nation States to recuperate and monetize “sorry”.

The 1990s saw five apologies to Indigenous peoples from Canadian institutions: four from churches (including a re-apology from the United Church)[1] and the first from the Canadian government (Jane Stewart’s “Statement of Reconciliation”). These five statements of regret set the tone for the “string of apologies” (Globe and Mail. May 14, 2008) that the Canadian government would offer to various groups in the following decade (including Chinese Canadians, Indigenous Peoples and Indo-Canadians).

However, in the limited space between these “sorries” there was little time for the reflection and debate that are needed to initiate a genuinely transformative politics of reconciliation. According to Jacques Derrida, “There is always a strategical or political calculation in the generous gesture of one who offers reconciliation or amnesty, and it is necessary always to integrate this calculation in our analyses.”

Yet, in Canada, the “morality” of apology took centre stage precluding any rigorous analysis of the  ways in which the state was wringing profit out of saying sorry. Indeed, in this period of time, as Roland Chrisjohn and Tanya Wasacase point out, “so many people… embraced the government’s own characterization of their words (‘truth,’ ‘reconciliation,’ ‘apology,’ and so on)… at face value” that by the time we reach Harper’s 2008 apology, the space for investigating the real value of apology had been closed off.

In this post I look at Canada’s two “official” apologies to Indigenous peoples: Jane Stewart’s “Statement of Reconciliation” and Stephen Harper’s “Full Apology.” By reading the two “sorries” as documents of calculation, rather than moral platitudes, we can garner a more accurate sense of the ideologies that support and maintain reconciliation in Canada’s parliamentarian discourse and establish how the Nation State profits from apology.

Mainstream media identified Jane Stewart’s “Statement of Reconciliation” as “the first time the government [made] a clear apology” for Residential Schools. The morning before Stewart’s address the Globe and Mail published an article entitled, “Natives Finally Get Ottawa’s Apology: ‘Deeply Sorry’ for Residential Schools”; After the Statement was delivered, ABC Newslink reported that “the Canadian Government has apologized to indigenous people for actions that have had a negative political, economic and social impact on its Aboriginal society.”

However, given some time, it was also mainstream media that also uncovered the self-interest behind the contrition. After discovering a hidden document, the Associated Press revealed that Stewart’s apology and the financial compensation that accompanied it ($350 million for community-based healing) was also a way to disguise the government’s attempt to control the cost of lawsuits. An internal document, published in 1996 –literally stamped “Secret”— revealed that by plying angry communities with a relatively small sum of money (which did not include individual reparation, as in the significantly larger Japanese Canadian Agreement), and mobilizing a rhetoric of regret, was, in the long run, the more financially sound option for the Canadian government.

According to the twenty-page report, “The number of individual claims as well as any negative implications for the federal government in defending such actions (lawsuits) would likely be minimized if a government policy, including some form of redress package, were adapted.”

Reading the Secret into the Statement, as the latent drive behind the manifest declaration, the language of regret that Stewart employs publicly should be interpreted as a way to cloak or disguise the market ideologies and political calculation behind the “apology.” Stating that the government is “deeply sorry,” offering “profound regret”  and sombrely reflecting on the “tragedy of sexual and physical abuse at residential schools” can be read as a way to distract Aboriginal people and non-Native citizens from the “unconscious” financial self-interest that drove the public apology.

Further, the fact that the document was marked “secret” illustrates the lengths government discourse must go to in order to separate apology from money. Any official proceeding that appeared to be based on a cost-benefit analysis would not be seen as a moral action at all, but a counting of coins, thereby rendering the apology itself meaningless. As Derrida puts it, “the link between morality and arithmetic, economy or calculation of pleasures imprints an equivocation on any praise of good intention.” By severing that link, the Canadian government attempted to appear spotlessly moral, thus pre-emptively quashing dissent.

However, while National Chief Phil Fontaine very quickly accepted the statement from Stewart, the majority of the Aboriginal community, particularly after the AP story, saw it as a way to “whitewash the ways in which Canadians still benefit from the past, stripping the apologies of remorse. Rendering them meaningless. Forgettable” (Miyagawa).

Thedocument uncovered by the AP provided an important supplementary reading for the statement itself: “sorry” was revealed as a means to reinforce colonial ideologies and maintain state control over resources. Stewart’s assertion that she and the Canadian government indeed had “profound regret” and were “deeply sorry” for the tragedy of residential schools, is not simply rendered meaningless then, as the preceding quote suggests, but it is actually re-inscribed in the terms of power and control. Thus “I’m sorry,” as it is defined by Stewart in relation to colonial violence, became a phrase characterized by duplicity and deceit: registered by Stewart and the Liberal government in Canadian public discourse not as a way to “heal wounds, restore dignity, and encourage forgiveness” but as a means to maintain colonial ideologies.

It is no coincidence, then, that Stephen Harper’s “full apology,” offered almost a full decade after Stewart’s “Statement of Reconciliation,” would tactfully avoid employing “sorry” to the same degree in its own movement towards reconciliation. What is most striking about Harper’s apology, if we hold it against Stewart’s “Statement of Reconciliation,” is the way in which he subtly shifts the discourse away from “sorry” towards the more robust phrase “we apologize.” While “sorry” is still used in his address, “apology” is undoubtedly the focus, most obviously illustrated by the title the Conservative government gave the speech after the fact: “Prime Minister Harper offers full apology on behalf of Canadians for the Indian Residential Schools system.” “Sorry” is used twice in this speech, but it is largely overshadowed by the focused use of “we apologize,” which is uttered six times in the address, four of them in a condensed apology paragraph:

To the approximately 80,000 living former students, and all family members and communities, the Government of Canada now recognizes that it was wrong to forcibly remove children from their homes and we apologize for having done this.  We now recognize that it was wrong to separate children from rich and vibrant cultures and traditions that it created a void in many lives and communities, and we apologize for having done this.  We now recognize that, in separating children from their families, we undermined the ability of many to adequately parent their own children and sowed the seeds for generations to follow, and we apologize for having done this.  We now recognize that, far too often, these institutions gave rise to abuse or neglect and were inadequately controlled, and we apologize for failing to protect you.  Not only did you suffer these abuses as children, but as you became parents, you were powerless to protect your own children from suffering the same experience, and for this we are sorry.

The repetition of “we apologize”, held in contrast to the single utterance of “we are sorry,” indicates the shift away from the latter phrase towards a new type of apology in Canada’s official discourse of regret. Whereas “sorry” was once the phrase to be repeated again and again in order to seek forgiveness, “we apologize” seems to have now taken on that role. Arguably, the reason for this shift can be connected to the way in which “sorry” had been determined by Stewart and the Liberal government as a means of eliding financial self-interest, a definition that the AP was able to expose. To put it differently, “sorry,” as an expression of grief and sorrow, had been overdetermined by deceit and bad-faith politics. Assuming that an apology is not just the words issued, but also the way in which they are issued, Harper had to employ a new discursive approach to an old Canadian utterance, using language that would convince the audience of his sincerity and desire for reconciliation.

The most obvious place to begin this type of reading in Harper’s speech is with use of the word “apology,” which, as we have already seen, is the semantic lynchpin of his statement. The word “apology” itself, particularly in Canada, is caught up in a very intricate political/financial web, which deserves our attention. According to Nicholas Tavuchis, a Canadian sociologist, the word “apology,” specifically, has become associated with guilt and fiduciary responsibility. As such, saying that you are sorry opens one up to justified financial attack and public shaming: “given these cultural and judicial facts of life, to apologize sincerely is a potentially stupid and costly gesture.”

In light of this, we should be rightly suspicious of how and why Prime Minister Stephen Harper–who notably ran on a neoliberal platform based on small-government and free market principles–would put to use a word that would so directly implicate his cabinet in what appears to be a form of welfare state provisions.

One clear answer to these questions can be located in the way apology itself was reformulated in Canada in the time between Stewart’s and Harper’s individual statements. Indeed, if we look at the literature that directly precedes Harper’s 2008 address we can see how apology has been slowly adapted to fit neoliberal principles and fiscal conservatism. In 2007, Russell J. Getz, a prominent B.C. lawyer and legal councillor for the Ministry of the Attorney General, wrote a paper calling for a “Uniform Apology Act” in Canada. In this paper, Getz sites evidence from malpractice suits in which 73% of those surveyed said they would not have sued if they had been given an apology. Canada-wide apology legislation, he argues, will “encourage people to engage in the moral and humane act of apologizing after having injured another.” The primary evidence that Getz uses to back up his claim comes from within BC itself.

In 2006, this province passed the Apology Act, which “provides that an apology is not admissible in civil proceedings for the purpose of proving liability and that an apology is not an admission of liability.” B.C.’s legislation was quickly followed by Saskatchewan’s Evidence Act, which operates under similar pretences. By 2008, just before Harper’s “full apology” to Survivors of the Residential School system, apology legislation, which actively sought to severe the link between apology and money (thus negating the need for “Secret” documents), was either in effect or being considered in more than half of Canada’s provinces and territories, including B.C. Saskatchewan, Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador and the Nunavut.

This is of no small consequence. According to Getz, the legal uncertainty of apology can lead people to avoid it and influence lawyers to advise their clients against saying “I’m sorry.” Obviously, this can stymie healing and reconciliation. In essence, the legislation passed in Canada thus far allows the perpetrator to apologize without fear that that apology will make them legally and financially responsible for their actions. Or, to put it differently, the Acts strips apology of its material accountability, removing the financial blocks that interfere with the apologist’s ability to engage on a “moral” level with their victim(s). As Getz puts it, “in general, apologies are morally desirable” and we should be doing all we can to break down barriers to their utterance.

From an idealist perspective this is of course all well and good and we can obviously see why Getz advocates for a Uniform Apology Act that would cover all of Canada.[2] Idealist claims like the one Getz makes are purposefully hard to challenge because they put opponents in the awkward position of appearing brutish and uncompassionate.

However, what Getz and his supporters wilfully disavow behind the guise of moral correctness is the stark material reality behind this legislation, namely that by untethering the link between apology and responsibility victims can no longer use the former to recoup the finances, land and goods that they have lost due to the event the perpetrator is apologizing for. Indeed, for Getz, the apology takes on a false materiality of its own–“an apology is a form of compensation”–which surreptitiously stands in for financial accountability and implies that an “I’m sorry” can somehow cover medical bills or purchase (stolen) land.

Further, by taking up a nearly indomitable “moral” position, which strategically substitutes words for resources, this elitist argument tacitly severs the link between apology and claims for land and resources, thus negating the possibility of Indigenous peoples being properly redressed for colonial tactics, offering them instead an intangible form of healing while maintaining the status quo. Indeed, as Dugald E. Christie has already argued, “the proposed Apology Act [and, I would argue all the apology legislation that is now in place in Canada] is primarily designed to save the government money, particularly with respect to Aboriginal claims.” As Christie argues, rightly I think, legislation benefits the cynical and hurts the empathetic: “the people who will not sue for an unremedied injury because there has been an apology are those who should receive the most compensation and not the least.” He goes on to support his argument by reflecting on the need for financial compensation for injured parties to heal properly:

A sixty year old woman, whose life has been devastated by childhood abuse from a person she trusted, likely will not recover with a mere apology. She may need years of painful counselling from a clinical psychologist so that she and her family can come to terms with what has happened.

Obviously, Christie is tacitly referring here to the many Aboriginal survivors who went through severe psychological trauma in Residential Schools. Suggesting that an apology can enact the work of psychological treatment, which, at eighty to one hundred dollars per hour, necessitates a stable bank account, denies the complexity of this trauma and elevates “we apologize” to a level not even the most profound speech act can reach. Indeed, Christie does not push his argument far enough.

It is not simply that these victims need financial redress in order to begin healing, something which the government has, to their credit, provided (in the form of $1.9 billion in restitution), but that they have also been denied access to the land and resources that sustain their way of life. By suggesting that an apology can somehow take the place of traditional land, not to mention the culture that stems from it, is not simply an egregious miscalculation, it is also a way to perpetuate colonial violence and maintain control of the resources that put Aboriginal people at a disadvantage in the first place. Indeed, we must be willing to move even further past Christie’s final point, in which he asks for “compensation and meaningful apologies” and start to re-think compensation as a part of the definition of apology, as opposed to a separate and independent term.

It is no coincidence that Harper’s slew of apologies to the victims of Canada’s racist and colonial policies, including his apology to Aboriginal people, Chinese Canadians and Indo Canadians, was offered  at the very time when apology legislation was being considered in more than half of Canada’s provinces and territories. By offering his statement just when apology and compensation were being separated into distinct terms in the official Canadian vernacular, Harper was able to utilize the more semantically powerful terminology without fear of making his government financially liable.

If we read his full apology alongside the political literature of the time, such as Getz’s paper, it is clear that by utilizing apology, Harper was, in effect, employing the neo-colonial measures we might expect from a Conservative government. Apology, as defined by the current literature, further elides Aboriginal peoples’ claims to land and resources while simultaneously creating the appearance of morality and benevolence for the speaker.

Indeed, when read within a larger legal and political discourse, Harper’s apology should be viewed as a failed endeavour of the same order as Stewart’s “Statement of Reconciliation.” If we study it alongside the legal discourse it is immersed in, it becomes clearer that the same financial conservatism –aimed at distributing as few resources as possible to Indigenous peoples– is as much at play in Harper’s Statement as it was in Stewart’s. In both cases, a deeper reading reveals an “unconscious” self-interest behind the manifest display of contrition, which should be enough to compel us to initiate deeper and more critical studies of all apologies offered at a state level, despite what might appear to be positive steps in semantic presentation and performance.


[1] This second apology, delivered by The Right Rev. Bill Phipps, Moderator of The United Church of Canada, came in response to the Canadian Government’s “Statement of Reconciliation”, discussed below, and was directed more specifically at survivors of residential schools.

[2] To be clear, by idealism I mean, of course, philosophical approaches that privilege the mind or ideas as the ultimate form of reality, as opposed to addressing historical/cultural contexts and material substances (see Rey Chow).

One comment

  1. andrea · · Reply

    It’s interesting to consider that the very genesis of legal system is in a desire to separate laws and morals. Many liability rules function that way, for example by saying “you must pay, but that doesn’t mean you are a bad person” or “we will allow this, but we don’t endorse it.” The apology laws you refer to help/harm, depending on your perspective. They allow people to express themselves when they regret something without feeling responsible for it, but yes, they also allow people to attempt to cynically placate with words what ought to be redressed with redistribution. The legal/moral distinction is doubly important when the political process of reconciliation (eg. BC’s treaty negotiations) has ground to a halt. For now, it appears that both the government and Aboriginal groups are going to deal with these issues in the legal arena.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: