Sorry Seems To Be An Easy Word

February 26, 2010 at 5:37 pm 7 comments

"The Apology" by Mark Ryden

Eccentric Muse comes off the slopes and dives into some current events that have caught her attention.

This week, U.K. PM Gordon Brown issued an apology for the British government’s Child Migrants Programme, in which up to 150,000 children, aged three to about 14, were shipped off to populate the colonies, including Canada, in the early part of the 20th Century.  In reality, these children were no more than human chattel, embarrassing (many were the children of unwed mothers) and a drain on Mother England’s resources during a time of war.  They ended up as child labour on farms, in mines and in factories, certainly neglected, frequently sexually and physically abused.  My grandfather was, apparently, one of them:  a “Barnardo” orphan, named for the main child services agency that executed the policy.  He ended up in Northern Ontario somehow (the details are sketchy), meeting my grandmother and fathering three children by her, then leaving her in poverty to fend for herself.  That legacy of shame and pain runs through my family tree.  There’s a whole story here that deserves telling, but that’s not what I’m on about today:  of interest is the apology, because….

Also earlier this week,  Mayor Peter Kelly of Halifax, Nova Scotia apologized to the former residents of Africville, a black settlement in Halifax which was populated until 1970 by descendents of African slaves who made their way up the coast to freedom in Canada. (Incidentally, if you’re looking for an award-winning fictional novel based on one of these journeys, pick up Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes; in the US, “Someone Knows My Name”:  Hill creates the extraordinary character of Aminata Diallo, whose story is tragic, moving, inspiring and ultimately redemptive.)

The community of Africville was a robust and deeply-textured one, but also a disenfranchised one.  After years of thinly-veiled neglect and outright racist hostility, during which city services like garbage collection, water and policing were denied to residents, Africville was destroyed:  razed by city planners who claimed it was a slum (with, as is typical, a disingenuous lack of awareness of their having made it so).  The last of the families was moved out, the land confiscated, bulldozers were brought in and this “blight” in the north end of town was wiped clean.   In 2002, a memorial plaque was erected and the patch of land that used to be Africville was recognized as a national historic site.

This week (during Black History Month, natch), we have an apology from the City of Halifax for their poor decision-making of 40 years ago.  Not, I note, an apology for their behaviour leading up to the decision, which was equally or more abhorrent.  There are boundaries to the apology commensurate with the level of liability that the City of Halifax is willing to take on, I guess.  I note as well that the other terms of the settlement, $3 million and 2.5 acres of land, is being given to the Africville Geneology Society.  There is so far no individual compensation offered. (Nor is there any financial settlement accompanying the UK apology).

This week’s two public apologies, on different continents and for different reasons, resonate with the 2008 apology to Canada’s native peoples.  At the root, all are apologies for stripping people of their histories  and their cultures. Is a trend emerging?  And if so (or even if not), does the increasing frequency of public apologies by governments erode the quality or value of the individual apologies being issued?  Throw some cash at the problem, issue a public declaration of contrition, get some press and let’s move on.  The devil on my right shoulder views these apologies cynically, and also believes that they are the politically and legally expedient thing to do: simply a risk mitigation strategy.  The angel on my left says, let’s give the benefit of the doubt to the apologizers…let’s also acknowledge our own complicity in the bad acts, and now let’s hold them (and ourselves) accountable for doing the right thing, which includes ongoing engagement in a process of reconciliation as well as taking concrete steps to prevent the same or similar things from happening again.  Let’s yank progress and future good acts from the still-clenched jaw of culpability when it opens its mouth to say “I’m sorry.”

None of these apologies has been unanimously accepted by the groups to whom they were directed (of course).  Both the Africville and native residential school apologies were mandated terms of the settlement agreements that were reached.  As such, both must meet the higher level of scrutiny of the affected groups and indeed, the rest of us who–as citizens of the country, province or city whose government is trying to make amends–are not just interested observers but also in some sense, co-apologists.   We evaluate the apology’s motive as a key factor in determining its sincerity, and whether it should be accepted.  Whether, in fact, we should forgive–or be forgiven.

I mean, this is the way it goes with apologies:  you need to mean it when you say it.  You need to acknowledge your accountability for the pain and damage you have caused free from any hidden agenda to benefit from your admission of guilt other than, possibly, obtaining the relief of confession and anticipating with humble hope the balm of forgiveness.  Without those essential elements, the receivers and observers of the apology smell a rat.  Like we do at a 6-year-old coming off the naughty step, we squint our eyes at the offender and suspect–with good reason–that what is being apologized for might not be what the perpetrator actually feels sorry about.

The non-apology apology is now a brightly shining, burnished-with-use tool atop every defence lawyer’s and PR/media strategist’s workbench.  Its too-frequent public appearance is undermining those apologies that are sincere.  Two words:  Tiger Woods.

Some apologies don’t need to be public, and issuing them publicly is to betray a woeful lack of understanding of exactly what you’ve done to feel sorry for.  Regardless, all apologies must include a commitment to never, ever again do whatever it was that got you into the pickle you’re now in. If you don’t know what you’ve done, you can’t very well promise never to do it again, can you?

Beware the non-apology apology that sounds like this:  I’m sorry for what happened or I’m sorry that you feel that way. Neither means that I accept responsibility for the act that caused the happening or the pain.  Perhaps the apology is not mine to give, in which case the apology is sympathy.  But this leads to another nefarious non-apology apology:  those that are offered on others’ behalf.  The apologist in this case is truly sorry and often feels a genuine sense of remorse.  This remorse, however, is combined with a desire for reconciliation that is so great, they will bear others’ burdens for them.  Their shallow sympathy does no one any favours and, in fact, absolves the real perpetrator of any need to change their bad behaviour.  These are the meaningless and even harmful apologies of the co-dependent.

Finally, beware the serial apologizers:  people (or institutions, and yes — I’m looking at you Catholic Church) who’ve taken the maxim “confession is good for the soul” to its illogical extreme.  Absolution is a given, as long as the right pose is struck, the right words are said.  To forgive is divine, so if you can’t forgive me after my apology, it’s your fault.

Extending The Hands Of Friendship

"Extending The Hand Of Friendship" by Simone McLeod

In this vein, I was heartened by the furor that ensued when the City of Winnipeg first announced it was contemplating giving $2.5 million to a group called “Youth For Christ” to build a community centre in downtown Winnipeg.  And today, I am saddened to learn that after a heated six-hour debate, Winnipeg’s City Council has voted 10:4 in favour of the proposal.  The money will start flowing, and the aboriginal youth who populate the area will soon have a community centre with an indoor skateboarding park, a performance-art studio and a job-training centre.  How is this a bad thing, you ask?  Well, on the surface, of course it’s not.  Drawing a parallel to Africville, however, Youth For Christ is now providing access to services that this population should have had all along, and that the city, province and federal government should be funding as a matter of course in keeping with the spirit of apology and restitution made in 2008, not to mention that it’s just bloody well the right thing to do for those citizens whose disadvantage is a direct result of government-sponsored systemic discrimination. Oh, and by the way:  these services should be respectful of native language, culture and spirituality and not, by all that is holy, hinge on these kids accepting Jesus Christ as their Personal Saviour or even having to put up with someone’s conversion efforts.  I mean, for the love of….. [insert Deity of your choice here].

Oh sure, John Courtney, the Executive Director of Youth For Christ, has danced with Fred-Astairian verbal lightness of foot to counter the criticisms of those (apparently a minority? how can this be?) who find it just a bit hypocritical and a lot insulting to have Youth For Christ–a group whose sole, self-admitted raison d’être is to convert youth to Christianity–running this new community centre that will serve a majority Aboriginal population.  He’s not even trying to say that staff won’t proselytize–he’s admitted outright that they will, although he prefers to refer to these activities euphemistically–but he does say that, should any kid not wish to receive Christ as his or her Personal Saviour, well, they won’t be denied access to the services that the community centre offers.  Uhhh, oh yeah John?!? Just how will that work, exactly? And just exactly what don’t you understand about systemic discrimination and the appropriation of culture in general, and the impact it has had on this population specifically?

No, Youth For Christ is not the Catholic Church, and this community centre is not a residential school.  But the devil-and-deep-blue-sea choice Youth For Christ is (or will be) implicitly presenting to these native kids is fundamentally the same:  here’s comfort, shelter, food, a job, a life … and in return, you need only give up your own culture, your own traditions and history, to obtain it.  Shame on you, City of Winnipeg.  You ought to be sorry and it’s already too late to apologize.


Entry filed under: Books, Personal Musings, Philosophy, Politics.

Skeletons In The Closet Takin’ A Break…

7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Donna  |  February 26, 2010 at 6:23 pm

    We are painfully, slowly moving to a global economy and society. I am an American Libertarian who believes that within the next century someone will blow up the planet or force us to unite under one philosophy. I don’t think it’s going to be capitalism or any form or Christianity that survives. Reality check, the radical Muslims have kept their own population in the dark ages for centuries while stock piling the weapons we built and sitting on the only commodity that can bring us to our knees.

  • 2. Eccentric Muse  |  February 26, 2010 at 7:03 pm

    Somehow, that feels to me too simple and predictable an outcome: that a group of homo sapiens sapiens blows up the world. I’m still inclined to see the planet’s death caused by asteroid–likely concurrent with the irrecoverable climate change we’ve produced by our reliance on oil.

    Oh, happy days!

  • 3. Annie  |  February 26, 2010 at 8:56 pm

    Respecting and following Aboriginal, Canadian and Native American spirituality…. I believe, with all my being that life “as we know it” will end. Is that bad? It’s all in your perspective. Being a student of nature, I believe that Mother Nature and Father Sun will prevail. The world of nature is so much stronger than mere humans.
    Have we harmed and will we greedy, spoiled children do more harm to our home. Undoubtedly. Something huge has to happen for the greed, abuse and apathy to stop.
    Wouldn’t respect and empathy for all life be a wonderful change.

  • 4. Eccentric Muse  |  February 26, 2010 at 9:29 pm

    I agree entirely, Annie. Civilizations rise and fall. Humanity’s time on the planet is a blink of an eye in terms of Earth’s history. Our planet itself has come into being, will live, grow and die in a cycle the length of which is pretty much beyond our comprehension and is still only a small drop in the bucket of cosmic time. Some people find this line of thinking bleak, depressing. I actually find it freeing–it makes it even more important to treat others with respect and empathy for the infinitesimally short time that we are here.

  • 5. Annie  |  February 27, 2010 at 12:15 am

    I just reread Sorry seems to be an easy word.
    I, individually am responsible for my own decisions, actions and words. When I am wrong, I freely and sincerely admit it. I accept my responsibility and make amends. It’s part of my ongoing journey to inventory my actions. Ah..and actions do speak louder than words. There was a time when I had to make many amends and my feet followed my words. I had to prove I had changed and I did.
    On the other hand, I do not take responsibility for any other person’s decisions, actions or words. If I did, that would indicate co-dependency on a grand scale. Even as a daughter is grown and makes her own choices. It doesn’t reflect on me. There comes a time of awareness that I am not responsible for the whole world. I am not the center of any universe. I am responsible for only myself. I am responsible for being the best I can be and doing the best I can do. Freedom.
    Perhaps the person who wrote that should spend some years working with the Aboriginal people and giving of him/her self.
    Can’t change what governments have done but we can reach out individual hands. Just because we care. Not in apology.
    Words are loosely thrown about.

  • 6. Eccentric Muse  |  February 27, 2010 at 9:54 am

    Annie, I very much agree with your take on individual responsibility.

    You also said: “Perhaps the person who wrote that should spend some years working with the Aboriginal people and giving of him/her self.”

    Not sure what you’re referring to here, and want to make sure my post is not misunderstood. I have, in fact, been considering this very thing. I am conscious of being a white woman intruding into a world that is not mine. It is a barrier that I would hope to overcome.

    I’m trying to find the text of the 2008 apology to Canada’s native peoples: My perception at the time was that it was offered with a remarkable level of sincerity (esp. from our very Conservative PM, Stephen Harper). It was NOT a non-apology apology. The majority of native groups, at least their official spokespeople, accepted it with equal grace–while both sides acknowledged there is much work still to be done.

    I think one of my points in my original post is that sincere and meaningful apologies are difficult to make. Following them through is even more difficult. Like you say, words are loosely thrown about. Taking real accountability for our actions is incredibly hard, and is for most of us a life-long journey.

    When apologizing starts to be a trend, saying I’m sorry becomes even easier and less meaningful. This is true for government and business, and it’s true at an individual level too.

    Another thing I didn’t get to was the number of women who start their sentences with “I’m sorry, but …” just before they express their opinions. You never hear a man start a sentence like this. My take on this is that It’s a relic of a patriarchal society in which women are not allowed to actually have opinions. It’s a speech habit that I always notice, and it makes me cringe every time I do.

  • 7. Annie  |  February 27, 2010 at 11:55 am

    Jen, I had to sort through conversations I’ve had and indeed have said, I’m sorry, but. It’s usually followed by I disagree. I will make a conscience effort to remove that from my vocabulary.

    I could go into a long and involved dissertation on patriarchal society and what my studies have shown. I won’t except to say it’s not flattering. Another twist and turn of religion and politics combined.

    Having been a hippie/flower child, I, all too well, remember the words “I love you” being spewed like snow during a blizzard. The philosophy of the time was a good one although false on so many fronts. The same is true of “I’m sorry” today. It causes disillusionment and disappointment when reality hits and they turn out to be empty words.

    As far as getting involved with the Aboriginal people. I was so very lucky and blessed to have had a Native American mentor as a child. When I moved to Arizona, I became very involved with their culture. I found there was so much I could offer and they had so very much to offer me. One of the most amazing things was, first impressions didn’t count with them. They waited until they got to know you before deciding if you were honest and real. Honesty means a great deal to them. Once you’ve proven you’re genuine, they embrace you as their own. I can honestly say that some of the best days of my life were spent in their midst. Fully accepted and heartfelt dialog. Their love, generosity and sense of humor are gifts I will carry with me always.

    Whatever you decide to give of yourself, throw your heart over the bar and you can’t go wrong. Hearts are color blind.


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