This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on December 3, 2017.
Prime Minister’s words ‘were the right words’.
Formal apologies issued by political leaders are as controversial as they are challenging to get right.
To many, these apologies seem like political tools, cynically used to garner or retain votes in certain communities.
Others see them as a way for the government, at no cost, to show it is acting on an issue. After all, apologies are cheaper than programs.
But for many of those on the receiving end, an apology is a powerful symbol — a way for a government to take responsibility for mistakes of the past.
When it was announced that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would apologize to LGBTQ2 Canadians for decades of, “state-sponsored, systematic oppression and rejection,” I questioned the impact such an apology would have.
While the prime minister’s record of accomplishment on LGBTQ2 community issues is a lifelong one, and he is clearly an advocate and an ally, I have been skeptical about the politicization of these announcements in the past.
So, was the move political or genuine? Could it be both?
In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized on behalf of the Canadian government to former students of residential schools.
The apology was a powerful one. I was proud that Prime Minister Harper had the courage to say sorry for atrocities that had become a permanent dark mark in Canadian history.
I do not know how indigenous Canadians perceived that apology, but I am confident it mattered for many.
It’s been almost 10 years, yet it still resonates. The apology found the right balance.
Did it make things, right? I don’t know.
What I do know is that indigenous Canadians are still treated unfairly. One in four children in indigenous communities lives in poverty, double the national average. On average, indigenous children receive 22 per cent less funding for child welfare than other Canadian children. Suicide rates among indigenous youth are about seven times higher than among other Canadians. More than 90 indigenous communities still have boil-water advisories.
If we were really, meaningfully sorry, would we continue to let this happen?
I don’t think so, and hence my skepticism about the efficacy of these apologies.
I recognize that the residential school apology is unrelated to the apology to the LGBTQ2 community, and therefore not the perfect analogy. However, I worry that, in general, apologies act as a way to distract our attention on difficult issues where the challenge presented has no quick, easy or obvious answer.
Until this week, I had concluded that I would prefer that politicians make concrete attempts to fix ongoing problems rooted in history rather than simply pay lip service through apologies.
But this week, my view changed.
As a gay man, I found myself in tears when our prime minister stood in our House, the House of Commons, and meaningfully, genuinely apologized to my community.
As I have written in this space before, words matter. I was moved by Trudeau’s words.
“Mr. Speaker, the number one job of any government is to keep its citizens safe. And, on this, we have failed the LGBTQ2 people, time and time again,” he said.
“It is with shame and sorrow and deep regret for the things we have done that I stand here today and say: ‘We were wrong. We apologize. I am sorry. We are sorry.’ ”
Just as for so long, the taunting, violent words of a school bully mattered, the demeaning locker room words of a teammate mattered, or the derogatory words of a work colleague mattered, the words of a political leader mattered.
And Trudeau’s words were the right words.
The prime minister’s apology came without cost to the taxpayer, but it came with enormous benefit to many. It brought us one important step closer to making true his statement that “for all our differences, for all our diversity, we can find love and support in our common humanity.”
Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.