July 4, 2008 Volume 22, Number 08
Apologies hold healing potential
By Doug Koop | Editorial Director
An odd thing happened on the road to reconciliation. Somebody accepted a measure of blame, said "I'm sorry" and made a solid effort to turn the situation around. The federal government's formal apology on behalf of Canadians for the Indian Residential Schools system is a necessary step in the right direction, a strong stride in the long process towards healing this lingering wound in our national psyche.
Nations, like the people who dwell within them, possess a moral character that can be shaped for good or for ill. The deeds of our forebears exert continuing influence on situations in our day, and the way we behave will affect the ethical landscape for generations of citizens yet to be born. The quest for a better society means addressing the wounds of our past.
Most contemporary Canadians agree that the policies our government designed to obliterate the cultures of indigenous peoples were misguided and deeply damaging. And for Christians the problem is intensified by the knowledge that our churches operated the schools that have had such "profoundly negative" consequences. "Today we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country," declared the prime minister.
So how does a community repudiate a disagreeable aspect of its past? Will an apology help? Can the sorrow and repentance of people today help to sweeten the bitter fruits of injustice past?
The answer to these questions is yes, but success is far from automatic. The flip side is that failing to offer an apology when one is due will inevitably compound problems. If a cycle of retribution is ever to be broken, somebody somewhere must take ownership of what's gone wrong. It is good that our government has taken this step. While there is no guarantee that any apology will yield positive results, several principles do apply.
Get specific. Groups and individuals who accept a level of complicity in a historical misdeed should be prepared to offer an apology for what they have done wrong. But an effective mea culpa must provide enough detail so that it's clear to all concerned exactly what an offender is taking responsibility for. Ambiguity gives rise to further misunderstanding. Specificity makes it possible to chip away at the barriers between people. Prime Minister Harper's apology named the problem with admirable clarity.
Check motivation. An effective apology must also be a motivated by an unfeigned desire to bridge a quarrel, end an enmity or cease a hostile relationship. It must be rooted in authentic zeal to do the right thing.
Only God can truly judge the heart, but the Harper apology resisted the impulse to offer excuses, accepted full responsibility for "failing" the Aboriginal peoples of this country, and expressed "a desire to move forward together with a renewed understanding that strong families, strong communities and vibrant cultures and traditions will contribute to a stronger Canada for all of us."
Prepare to pay the cost. A meaningful apology will almost certainly be tested, and the giver must be prepared to live with the practical implications of a confession of guilt. A just outcome to outstanding problems is likely to require either reparation or restitution. If that means accepting liability for damages, be prepared to pay. Words alone are rarely enough. But neither are dollars alone ever enough. The way ahead will be costly, but now it can at least begin to fill the deep pit our past policies created.
Settle in for the long haul. The ultimate goal of a genuine apology is reconciliation. Apology-givers must be acutely aware that their action is but one step on a long, tortuous road. It is a vitally important step to be sure. Without the confession of an apology, the possibility of forgivenessthe very hardest step toward reconciliationis incredibly remote. Apologies entail risks that test the mettle of what it means to be Christian, for seeking to restore broken relationships is at the very heart of the gospel message.
"We heard the government of Canada take responsibility for this dreadful chapter in our shared history," said Phil Fontaine, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. "What happened today signifies a new dawn in the relationship between us and the rest of Canada." May it be so.