‘It’s a weird thing. I was more impressed with [the school survivors’] power to overcome than feeling sorry,” said New York Islanders coach Ted Nolan after Wednesday’s apology for residential schools. That rings true to me. I don’t think sincerity was the issue, though there was much stress on it. When it comes to public apologies, it’s less a question of sincerity than it is, as the Ojibwa coach from northern Ontario said, of power.

For one thing, even sincerity is cheap, compared, say, to the $5-billon cost of the Kelowna Accord with aboriginals, which the apologetic Stephen Harper tore up, or to accelerating the glacial land-claims process.

But the real peril in public apology is that it can disempower those who get one while, in effect, adding strength to the apologizers by granting them the power to “heal.” It can reinforce the victor/victim roles. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be apologies, there should. But too much apology can be counterproductive, substituting mere sympathy or pity for real respect between equals — which must be established by deeds, not just declared. An apology takes two sides, apologizers and apologizees; what counts is the power relations between them, and the sense of self that each has. In this case, any feeling of equality is still tenuous.

There was, for instance, a smug sense on the part of some apologizers that It’s all about us. CTV’s Dan Matheson asked Mike Duffy, “Do you think we are ready as a people to say we are guilty?”

“Oh, I think we are, Dan,” cogitated Duff. There was an odd, cheerleading air to Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl, like a coach before the big game: “It’s going to be a great apology because we’ve done a lot of consulting.” This works if it’s all about your side, the apologizers.

It’s harder for the apologizees to get pumped because they’re located as victims. Only after fully overcoming their victimhood would the interchange gain some balance.

Compare other cases of public apology. When people apologized at South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation hearings, apartheid had already been dismantled by the very folks receiving the apologies. The anti-apartheid forces had won, and won respect. When Germany apologized to Jews for the Holocaust, the state of Israel had been created. Jews and others perceived it in terms of self-assertion and equality. Had there been no Israel, Germany would have apologized, but without the same sense of parity.

Poet Milton Acorn once told poet Irving Layton to remember that “fight” also rhymes with “plight” when looking for a word to go with “write,” in a poem about injustice. Milt always preferred fight over plight. Union leader Kent Rowley was sometimes reluctant to take workers’ complaints of abuse to labour or rights tribunals because he didn’t want to bolster any feelings they had of inadequacy, but rather to build up a sense of their own strength.

In this light, the best part of Wednesday’s apology was the fight for the natives’ right to be on the floor of the House, and speak. The government resisted till the last minute, but the natives won. Without that, it would have been one-sidedly focused on the words of the apologizers. Of course, it’s all been one long battle. A former school resident scoffed, “They never moved an inch till the lawsuits started.” Good (power) point.

As for individual healing, it doesn’t come from an apology. Some people, deprived of family, seemed to inexplicably, heroically parent themselves into adulthood. Some made it with aid from their community. And some simply didn’t. “I’m not very impressed,” said another ex-resident. “I put in eight years in that dump. … My life was destroyed and there’s no way they can fix it.” That has an oddly unvictim-like sound, as if she’s on the way now, no thanks to their apology. Maybe when she’s in better shape, she can take it in.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.