Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson apologized to NDP candidate Bowinn Ma. So did Liberal candidate Jane Thornthwaite, who had portrayed Ma in an uncomplimentary way.
At a roast for former colleague Ralph Sultan, Thornthwaite implied that Ma had used her sexuality to get close to Sultan: “very close together … cuddling, a bit of cleavage there…”
The anecdote was, as columnist Les Layne wrote in the Victoria Times Colonist, “a wildly inappropriate anecdote that violated political norms about gender, sexuality and taste.”
At the time, Wilkinson laughed.
Then he waited a whole day before apologizing on behalf of his party and his candidate.
So what’s with apologies, anyway?
Over the last few years, we’ve heard lots of apologies.
In June 2008, then Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered a formal apology to former students of Indian Residential Schools, on behalf of the government and people of Canada.
The United Church of Canada formally apologized — twice, in 1986 and in 1998 — for failing to respect traditional Indigenous values and beliefs. All other major denominations have done something similar, confessing their complicity in an unjust system that they failed to question.
Maple Leaf Foods apologized for producing meats tainted with listeriosis.
An apology is not — or at least should not be — merely a confession. A confession can be made in private, to a third party who has nothing to do with the situation. Indeed, in the classic Catholic confessional, the priest is duty-bound to take no action about whatever he may hear.
An apology cannot be private. It has to be made to the wronged party. And to be meaningful, it must include a commitment to change.
I remember when my church recited a General Confession every Sunday morning. “Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of All Things, Judge of all men, we acknowledge and confess our manifold sins which we from time, have committed, by thought, word, and deed, against The Divine Majesty…”
Impressive words. Clearly directed to a deity accustomed to communicating in sonorous polysyllabic abstractions. (Something, incidentally, that God never does in the Bible.) And, to quote Macbeth, “signifying nothing.”
Because it neither expects nor defines the change needed.
A current Roman Catholic Missal updates the language, but not the principle: “I confess to almighty God, and to you my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned in my thoughts and my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do…”
Not a word in those confessions — polysyllabic or not — about what we intend to do to make amends. That calls for a turning around — what theologians call metanoia — from the old ways.
What difference have those confessions made?
Maple Leaf’s confession saved the company. CEO Michael McCain told the Globe and Mail, “I paid no attention to … the lawyers and the accountants.” McCain accepted responsibility — despite lawyers’ fears it could leave the company vulnerable to legal action — kept the public informed, and made the company profitable again.
I don’t think governments have done as well.
Government apologies seem to imply monetary reparations are sufficient. About $5 billion to the victims of residential schools. For Japanese Canadians deported from the coast in the Second World War, $21,000 to each living survivor.
The B.C. government issued a “statement of regret” in 2004 for forcibly incarcerating about 200 Doukhobor children between 1953 and 1959 at the Japanese internment camp in New Denver. No further action.
The government of Newfoundland and Labrador apologized for arbitrarily relocating two Inuit villages. They got a memorial monument.
Are we, in fact, treating people who have been wronged any better? Yes. And no.
Canadian law now states you cannot discriminate against people simply because they are Indigenous, black, Asian, gay, or female.
And Canada has officially adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
But schools for Indigenous children on remote reserves still receive less funding per pupil than urban “white” schools. Indigenous communities still lack safe drinking water. The prison rates for non-white minorities remains far out of proportion to their percentage of the population, whatever the reason.
Alcoholism and drug use remain rampant.
Individual churches have made valiant efforts to right old wrongs. But in the bigger picture, I don’t see them doing much better than governments.
Their apologies didn’t have any teeth.
Will Wilkinson’s and Thornthwaite’s apologies change the tenor of political discourse in this province?
As the election countdown heats up, we’ll wait and see.
Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author and freelance journalist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org