“Sorry, Sorry, Sorry, Sorry”: Canadian Political Apologies and Compulsive Repetition

Regret is not linear. A sorry is not a straight line. Reconciliation is a system of cyclical movements across, between, and within a shifting landscape of subjectivities. Consider the idea of apology. Not as means to an end, but as a means unto itself–a perpetual motion engine. Jacques Lacan’s notion of the drive is instructive here. Opposed to biological needs, or what Freud identified as instinct, for Lacan, the drive can never be satisfied. Drive continually circles around the object of desire, rather than aiming directly at it.

Apology, as it is articulated (and re-articulated) in Canada, is a demonstration of the Lacanian drive in action. It does not aim for resolution as it does for ongoing performances of guilt.

In order to establish this, we need to first look at what apology is in this particular political moment. According to Roy L. Brooks, “we have clearly entered what can be called the ‘Age of Apology’” (3). Since the end of the Cold War, and the shift from Realpolitik to what Elzar Barkan calls “the new age of international morality”, governments have been embracing models of justice that forgo retribution and work towards facilitating peaceful coexistence in what Jacques Derrida named modernity’s “ceremony of culpability” (29).

Since 1990, fifteen nation states have incorporated “reconciliation” into Truth Commissions aimed at redressing historical injustice, while other countries, such as Canada and Australia, have built apology into the national imaginary via elaborate displays of regret (sorry days, reconciliation walks, sorry books).

In one sense, apology, as it has been defined in the post-Cold War era, is a sociopolitical act of reunification, what I identify here in the logic of Lacan’s “metonymy of desire.” But, in Canada, apology is more rightly defined as a reiteration of the drive—the purpose of which is not to meet the goal of “wholeness,” or what Kant called “Perpetual Peace,” but to follow its aim, which is to circle round the object. Realigning the discourse of apology theory around the logic of the drive (as opposed to desire) interrupts the logic of the nation state, which has recuperated “sorry” into the project settler colonialism via what Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang identify as “settler moves to innocence.”

Canada, of course, has a long history of political apologies attached to colonial violence. The 1990s saw five apologies to Indigenous people 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 what The Globe & Mail called the “string of apologies” offered by the Canadian government to various groups in the following decade (including Japanese Canadians, Chinese Canadians, Indigenous Peoples and Indo-Canadians).

That the repetition and reiteration of apology in Canada is indicative of the Lacanian drive is illustrated through two intersecting points of analysis, which I will discuss first before delving into a closer analysis of political apology in Canada. First, as I identify above, the true aim of the Lacanian drive is not to reach its goal, but to circulate endlessly around it. Thus, the intent of the drive is not to aspire to the goal of full satisfaction, but to perpetuate its circular path. True enjoyment is thus the continuation of a closed circuit or what Freud identified as Wiederholungszwang (the compulsion to repeat).

Building from Tuck and Yang, if we were to identify the mostly likely space for enjoyment within the structure of Canadian apologies, the first place to look is to the relief of guilt. The Canadian compulsion to repeat “sorry,” and therefore to perpetuate the closed circuit, would thus seem to clearly locate that discourse as an ongoing attempt to define and perform innocence. Apology in this formulation is “impossible” not because it can’t address the violence of settler colonialism, but because, as drive, it is defined by its continuation.

Currently, however, the theorization of political apology, as taken up by Tavuchis, is caught up in what Lacan would call “the metonymy of desire” in which the partial object (“sorry”) stands in for the impossible Thing itself (the healing of the wounds cause by colonialism). In apology, the metonymy of desire is directly connected to a belief that the apology can stand in for socio-political change. According to Tavuchis, “an apology, no matter how sincere or effective, does not and cannot undo what has been done. And yet, in a mysterious way and according to its own logic, this is precisely what it manages to do” (5). The magical belief in the metonymy of desire, is rendered manifest in parliamentarian insistences that apology can render whole a nation divided by historical injustice—that the partial object, sorry, is a viable stand in for the impossible Thing (undoing colonial violence). This is perhaps made no where more explicit than in the Harper government’s insistence that the Prime Minister’s 2008 statement to survivors of residential schools was a “Full Apology,” an issue I will return to momentarily.

What Tavuchis’s analysis overlooks is the excremental remainder of the apology: the jouissance of apology, as it is enacted as a failure, and doomed to repeat itself, ad infinitum. As Slavoj Zizek puts it, “a drive as it were turns failure into a triumph—in it, the very failure to reach its goal, the repetition of this failure, the endless circulation around the object, generates a satisfaction of its own.” The satisfaction found in failure and its repetition is another way of defining the Freudian death drive: made explicit in post WW2 apologies by Nazi’s like Albert Speer, who insisted on the futility of his apologetic words even as he offered them. These “impossible” apologies do not offer the Nirvana-return peace, but “the endless repetitive cycle of wandering around in guilt and pain” (Zizek). Consider Speer’s apology:

Whether I knew or did not know, or how much or how little I knew, is totally unimportant when I consider what horrors would have been the natural ones to draw from the little I did know […] No apologies are possible. (qtd. in Tavuchis 21, my emphasis)

According to Tavuchis, Speer’s apology is possible precisely because it acknowledges its impossibility. On the one hand, if an apology is something that can heal or make up for the past, Speer admits that his words are incapable of the task. On the other hand, it is in the very act of “not apologizing” that Tavuchis argues makes Speer makes his apology viable. To make this point clearer, one need only think of Speer actually saying nothing (as many perpetrators did). If “no apologies are possible,” then nothing can be said, but by saying that he can’t apologize, Speer in fact offers a more possible apology simply because he attempts the unattainable, therefore allowing his audience to suspend their disbelief and trust in his sincerity. Indeed, “most critics praised his [Speer’s] candour in writing about the responsibility he bore for Nazi excess” (Tavuchis 21).

Tavuchis’s analysis is steeped in a post-structuralist approach that engages language as always already in excess to itself. In this formulation, words can never simply be defined by what they are not (e.g. an apology is not a repeated offense). What a word “is” is constantly unfolding in a complex and irreducible web of signifiers that produce and change meaning. Applying that formulation to “apology” means acknowledging that the word “sorry” can never encompass the breadth of pain and suffering it attempts to account for. In acknowledging that limitation, one then opens up the possibility for speaking into the impossible, as Tavuchis claims Speers accomplishes.

While it’s not always acknowledged as such, the post-structuralist formulation of apology gets a lot of traction in contemporary reconciliation discourse. According to Carl D. Schneider, the statements of regret that have the most potential for reconciliation do not attempt to offer a full account of the wrong in question. Rather, the proper apology acknowledges its own limitations: “I don’t know what I can say except I’m sorry for what I did. I’m sorry – that’s all I can say.” Tavuchis makes a similar point: “To apologize is to declare voluntarily that one has no excuse, defence, justification, or explanation for an action (or inaction) that has ‘insulted, failed, injured, or wronged another.’” In this line of thinking, it is incompleteness that makes a truly sincere apology: the recognition of its impossibility.

The notion of an impossible apology resonates loudly with a Derridean approach to the discourse of reconciliation, which is skeptical of the idea that apology or forgiveness can be rendered into a political program. For Derrida, state-level apology and reconciliation depend on a sovereign to organize them; both concepts require “the power necessary to organize a trial, an applicable judgement or, eventually, acquittal, amnesty, or forgiveness.” Derrida longs for reconciliation that does not require sovereignty, but he also wonders how this might be possible, inasmuch as it requires a guarantor. Apology theorists, such as, I would suggest, Tavuchis, working out of the Derridean paradigm solve the problem of sovereignty by usurping the government with the “figure” of the aporia, an unresolvable internal contradiction. In this configuration, a “healthier” apology is one that recognizes its own “impossibility” rather than pretending to offer a full and complete account for a historical injustice (as in the Harper instance) or demanding acceptance. To argue this differently, a Derridean apology “is” only insofar as it deconstructs its own meaning in its utterance.

Where I take issue with the deconstructive apology is in what it overlooks in the rush to find possibility in the impossible. By privileging the deconstructive element of Speer’s “apology,” Tavuchis overlooks one of the most problematic elements of the officer’s remarks: namely that “how much or how little [he] knew, is totally unimportant.” In focusing on the “impossibility” of the apology, Tavuchis simultaneously allows Speer to distance himself from the realities of Nazi persecution. His knowledge of the events, and thus his ethical responsibility for them, is maintained as secondary to his “sincere” statement of regret.

What I believe needs to be thrown into relief in this formulation is not only the cost of failure, which is immense, but also what failure facilitates as the compulsion to repeat. According to Anna Carastathis, Canadian political apologies, such as the one offered by Harper to residential school survivors, “appear to be doing one thing (for instance, expressing regret), but what they are really doing is something else entirely: “They are failing: but this failing is a doing—and that is why [these apologies] are a particularly nefarious, slippery form of speech” (238). From Lacan, we know that the doing identified here is facilitating a cycle of pleasure that maintains an ongoing release of white guilt. Failure, in this sense, is not meeting the demands and needs of the surviving community, but it is also perpetuating a cycle of guilt that fuels settler colonialism via moves to innocence.

If it is drive, not desire, that provides the psycho-social structure for political apology, then “sorry” functions as a product of what Lacan, in Seminar 7, calls “the service of goods” (318): the Statist definition of morality that always already operates via the production of capital—a double entendre that Lacan plays with in his use of “goods” For Lacan, who contends with Kant’s with “perpetual peace”, State morality “is no-doubt a tidied up, ideal order” (315), because gestures of apology, emancipation or reconciliation are always undergirded by an economic imperative: “the essential point,” Lacan says of State morality, “is carry on working. Work must go on” (315). In this order, apology is possible only inasmuch as the capitalist machinery of the State is always in motion. Lacan’s words are thus remarkably apt for considering precisely how little is actually at stake in Harper’s “Full Apology”:

nothing indicates that even at that limit [of complete reconciliation] the problem will disappear… Either they imply that the properly statest values of the State will disappear, that is organization and policing, or they introduce a term such as the universalist concrete State, which means no more than supposing things will change on a molecular level” (Lacan 318).

In the remaining portion of this post, I analyze Canada’s two “official” apologies to Indigenous people as a means to exemplify the drive that provides for them: First, Jane Stewart’s 1998 “Statement of Reconciliation” and second Stephen Harper’s “Full Apology.” Reading the two “sorries” from a Lacanian perspective, that is, as drive rather than as metonymy of desire, provides more accurate insight into the colonial ideology that support and maintain apology in Canada—particularly in how the Nation State folds profit into what apology is as such.

Mainstream media identified Jane Stewart’s “Statement of Reconciliation” as “the first time the [Canadian] 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.” However, given some time, it was also mainstream media that uncovered the self-interest behind State contrition. After stumbling upon 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—and literally stamped “Secret”—revealed quantitative data illustrating that plying angry communities with a relatively small sum of money 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” report into the Statement of Reconciliation, as the latent drive behind the manifest declaration, the language of regret that Stewart employed publicly should be interpreted as a way to cloak the market ideologies and political calculation behind the “apology.” Stating that the government is “deeply sorry,” offering “profound regret” while sombrely reflecting on the “tragedy of sexual and physical abuse at residential schools” distracts from the “unconscious” financial interest that occurs as a result of those statements of contrition.

Carastathis names these apologies nonperformatives. For Carastathis, “failure is internal to this form as speech. That is, not doing what it says it does is how this form of speech ‘succeeds.’ Nonperformative speech dissimulates, distracts, and disavows its real, lived effects. It elides the actual character of the material relations of power that enable such speech” (237-38). The fact that the supplementary document was marked “secret” illustrates the lengths government discourse can go to in order to disavow the economic conditions that facilitate the very possibility of apology. In this sense, post-cold war apology is not a turn from realpolitik, as Barkan suggests, but a realignment of those same pragmatic principles beneath the mask of morality. In failing, then, these apologies provide a regimented space for the government to continue to exact control over land and resources under the guise of morality—an reiterative opportunity that Harper’s government took advantage of a decade after Stewart’s initial statement of reconciliation.

While Stewart’s statement is never acknowledged in the 2008 apology, Harper’s statement bears witness to the compulsion to repeat behind colonial apology. While the language is slightly different, “sorry” is offered to the same victims (survivors of residential schools and their families) for the same offences. What is perhaps most interesting about Harper’s apology, however, is his explicit attempt to frame apology within the logic of metonymy of desire; that is to offer “sorry” as whole and complete. This closure is made most explicit in the way in which the Conservative government framed the speech: “Prime Minister Harper offers full apology on behalf of Canadians for the Indian Residential Schools system.” By explicitly naming it a “full apology,” the Harper government attempted to close off the possibility of repetition, and therefore the logic of the drive, naming it a sorry that covers all ground, that leaves no wound unhealed, and thus needs no further thought, conversation or deliberation. Of course, this is a specious gesture that, like so much colonial legislation, begins from the notion that the “Indian problem” can be solved, but which also aims to contain the apologizable within the purview of the colonial state.

But still, it is not entirely clear why apology to survivors was repeated under Harper’s governance. In 1984, when asked to offer an apology for Japanese Canadian internment camps, then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, argued that “in a country as diverse as Canada, with so many entrenched beliefs of particularistic grievances, no government should be apologizing, because the apologies would never stop. We can only just be in our own time.” There is, of course, a financial component to Trudeau’s argument as well, which one might assume Harper would follow, given his neoliberal predilections. According to Tavuchis, apology is associated with guilt and fiduciary responsibility: “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 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. What had changed between Trudeau, Stewart, and Harper’s administrations? What is an apology worth to the current government?

Trudeau was correct. As Canadian history perhaps best illustrates, one apology begets another. But, whereas the string of apologies represented a threat to the nation state for one Prime Minister, it is a means to reinforce those same nation state policies for another. Here is why. If we look at the literature that directly precedes Harper’s 2008 address we can see how apology was 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 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. In 2006, the 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 material compensation, 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 the ephemeral promise of healing and reconciliation promised by the logic of desire. 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 strip apology of its material accountability, removing the fiscal impediments that impede it 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.

Of course, this analysis overlooks the ways in which “morality” is mobilized as a political tool.

By taking up a nearly indomitable “moral” position, which strategically substitutes words for resources, or, to come back to Lacan, the partial thing for the whole, parliamentarian apology severs the link between apology and claims for land and resources, thus negating the possibility of Indigenous people being properly redressed for colonial violence, offering them instead an intangible form of healing while maintaining the status quo. Indeed, as Dugald Christie argues, “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 Indigenous claims.” As Christie points out, legislation like the Apology Act 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.” For Christie, the parliamentarian insistence that an apology can singularly enact the work of healing denies the complexity of the trauma associated with residential schools and elevates “we apologize” to a level not even the most profound speech act can reach.

While I agree entirely with Chistie’s critique of apology legislation, I would suggest that he needs to push his argument further. It is not simply that victims of residential schools 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 traditional practices and knowledges. By suggesting that an apology can somehow take the place of traditional land is not simply an egregious miscalculation, it is also a way to perpetuate colonial violence and maintain control of the resources that put Indigenous people at a disadvantage in the first place. It is not that compensation needs to accompany apology in order for the latter to be valid, as Christie suggests, it is that compensation needs to be considered as what apology properly is.

Rather than continuing to demand political apologies, theorists and activists need to begin calling out these apologies for what they are: an attempt to end the conversation and protect colonial interests. In this sense, identifying political apology as drive, as opposed to desire, can be an unsettling act. According to Zizek,

drive is quite literally the very “drive” to BREAK the All of continuity in which we are embedded, to introduce a radical imbalance into it, and the difference between drive and desire it precisely that, in desire, this cut, this fixation onto a partial object, is as it were “transcendentalized,” transposed into a stand-in for the void of the Thing.

As long as we continue to privilege apology as the means to cure historical injustice; that is as long as critics, politicians and activists continue to theorize and employ it within the metonymy of desire, we perpetuate the smooth flow of settler colonial ideology—which has clearly recuperated “sorry” into the service of goods. Identifying apology as a drive is a means to break the continuity of this discourse and continue to critique the “morality” of settler colonial ideology.

[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).

Žižek, Slavoj “A Plea for a Return to Différance (with a Minor Pro Domo Sua )”
Critical Inquiry, Vol. 32, No. 2 (Winter 2006), pp. 226-249.

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