When I was in Manhattan last year, a woman bumped into me in a revolving door. Instantly, reflexively, I said "Oh! Sorry." To which she replied "That's alright." I was surprised by how viscerally offensive her response was to me. How dare she have the nerve to tell me "that's alright." Didn't she know that she was supposed to reply "sorry" in return? But alas, Americans are not known for their politesse.
I share this story because I think it tells us something funny about the constitution of the Canadian apology. The apology is automatic. Expected. Perfunctory. It serves the function of a social cauterizing agent by burning away any potential bad feelings on the wound of an uncomfortable social interaction. Canada is a deeply passive aggressive country, after all, and the perfunctory apology is the purest expression of that passive aggression.
What makes the apology passive aggressive is what was missing from my story: the expected, reciprocal apology. I am sorry. Then you are sorry. Having acknowledged our friction in the most superficial way we move on with our lives. "Sorry" is mandatory, superficial and final. The potential conflict is acknowledged without really being addressed. And now that we've apologized, of course, it would be rude to discuss it any further.
So 'sorry' is a very useful word in Canada when you would like to put a subject to bed, as the current government is attempting to do with its apology for the historic bad treatment of LGBTQ public servants. It is one of the favourite words of the Canadian government, and has been since the 1980s, when Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney apologized for the internment of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War. The Canadian government's decision to confiscate the property of an identifiable ethnic minority then imprison them in internment camps created an uncomfortable parallel.
To emphasize the sincerity of its apology, the Canadian government paid $21,000 to each surviving internee, $12 million for a Japanese community fund, and $24 million to create a Canadian race relations foundation. This noble gesture was almost undoubtedly cheaper than fairly compensating the survivors for their displacement, trauma and property seized by white governments and citizens. Significantly, it began the era of the official apology.
In many of these cases, as in the case of Japanese internment, the government has offered financial compensation. Sometimes this is merely a grant made available to members of the affected community. In other cases it is a lump sum payment to affected individuals. This ranges from $20,000 or so in the case of the Chinese Head Tax or Japanese internment, to the complex formula used to determine the cash value of trauma suffered by former students of the Indian Residential Schools system.
The compensation is better than nothing. It is also grotesque to think that the experience of being targeted for abuse, expropriation or exploitation by the government could be made right by a simple cash settlement. Such settlements are inadequate for three reasons. The first is that you simply cannot assign a dollar value to trauma. The second reason is that such settlements rarely come close to compensating for the actual financial harm caused. For the Japanese fishermen and farmers who lost their livings, a mere $21,000 payout is a far cry from the real financial losses they suffered.
But the third thing that makes cash settlements inadequate is by far the most profound. They aren't accompanied by meaningful change. Sure, the Canadian government no longer levies a head tax on Chinese immigrants - but it does let wealthy migrants jump the immigration queue. And no, the Canadian government no longer forces indigenous children into residential schools - but provincial child welfare services continue to rip indigenous children from their families and place them in foster care with all too often white parents. And while we might like to think that Canada has become a haven to refugees, we turned away 1/3 of refugee claimants in 2016 - a number that doesn't include claims abandoned or withdrawn by claimants waiting in bureaucratic purgatory. This number is also a high - under the Conservatives, the number of refugees admitted hovered around 30%.
What are we to make of this kind of apology? Lenore Walker, American psychologist and founder of the Domestic Violence institute, developed a model describing cycles of abuse. The cycle begins with rising tension, followed by abuse, followed by reconciliation and finally a period of calm.
The Canadian state is very good at being sorry. It knows that a public apology and a compensation package will quiet the anger and sense of injustice that grows as people become aware of its abusive behavior. It waits for public scrutiny to die down and then it goes right back to its abusive behavior - deporting its citizens to be tortured, stealing indigenous children and persecuting minority groups. Even as Justin Trudeau weeps for reconciliation, his government fights in the courts to avoid investing in the well-being of indigenous children.
The Canadian state is good at looking sorry. It knows how to make a show of listening and seeming contrite. It seldom does the exact same harmful thing twice. But for all its apologies, it seems unwilling to make the structural changes necessary to prevent the same kind of problems from happening over and over. In its ongoing pattern of white supremacy, the Canadian government's apologies aren't worth the paper they're printed on.