Acts of Contrition: Rethinking the Purpose and Effect of Government Apologies

By Teresa Iacobelli

In March 2010 the Qikiqtani Truth Commission (QTC) will draw to a close with the release of a final report and recommendations for the future.  While the QTC has been ongoing since 2007 most Canadians remain unaware of its existence, and of the historical and social issues that it addresses.  The QTC was created with a mandate to research and report on the facts surrounding the alleged dog slaughters, relocations and other government policies that affected Inuit communities in the Eastern Arctic between the period of 1950 and 1980.  As part of completing this mandate archival research has been conducted, witnesses have been interviewed and oral histories have been collected in several northern communities.  In addition to uncovering the facts, the QTC website ( also indicates that the purpose of this commission is to ultimately promote healing and reconciliation between Inuit communities and the Government of Canada.

The work of the QTC brings to light the question of whether or not such commissions actually achieve their intended goals, and whether government apologies serve any real purpose or have any measurable effect.  These questions are particularly relevant in Canada where recent years have seen numerous campaigns that have led to the collision of Canadian history with contemporary Canadian politics. These campaigns have included (but are not limited to) the demand for compensation for the head tax lobbied against Chinese immigrants in the early twentieth century; reparations for the interment of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War; a call to pardon soldiers that were executed for desertion and cowardice during the Great War; and the demand for an apology and compensation for survivors of the Indian residential schools system. While these campaigns have some clear differences, taken together they do raise some interesting questions.  Foremost is the question of whether it should be up to a current government to apologize for the misdirected policies of their predecessors.  Where is the line drawn between acknowledging mistakes of the past, and attempting to rewrite it?  The campaign to pardon executed soldiers of the Great War dealt with this question head-on.  While today most would agree that to execute a volunteer soldier for the crime of desertion or cowardice is a punishment unbefitting the crime, in the context of the world of 1914-1918 we must not forget that these executions were not only legal, but also consistent with contemporary attitudes regarding crime and punishment in both civilian and military life.

Furthermore how do we deal with the often complicated reality of our history, in other words how do we move beyond the over-simplified roles of victim and perpetrator and recognize the nuances that so often characterize the past. A start may be to acknowledge the full range of experiences that make up our history. For example, the QTC hearings may reveal that the Canadian Government’s northern policies often created cultural loss and dislocation among Inuit communities, but they may also show that some Inuit benefited from increased access to health care and social programs, including government relief during periods of starvation. There is no singular experience, especially in the context of government policies that cover multiple groups in multiple locations over a thirty year period of public policy.  Therefore, is it naïve to assume that we can address the complexity of the situation with one single statement of regret?  Finally, it is worth asking how national apologies actually affect the lives of survivors. While Prime Minister Harper’s 2008 apology for the Indian residential school system was an emotional event for many survivors, how have their lives changed since? While financial compensation exists for former students, it can have no real and lasting impact if both the government and Aboriginal communities continue to fail to address the core issues of systemic poverty, substance abuse, corruption and the lack of opportunities that plague so many Aboriginal communities.

While both the good and the bad of history must be acknowledged and commemorated, both the glorious and inglorious moments, I question whether government apologies have become so common as to become meaningless.  When an apology is issued only to achieve a political pay-off or when it is contrived by a roomful of lawyers so as to avoid the least amount of liability, is the sincerity of the apology stripped away, leaving only a hollow expression of guilt, contrition and compensation?

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