Many of us may recall a time when we frequently heard “All we want is an apology.” This might have been in response to something that happened to us individually, such as a botched medical procedure or bad legal advice. Or it could have been something more systemic, such as the mistreatment of Indigenous people. It seemed harsh that neither the government, nor the people clearly responsible for significant personal hardships, could simply offer an apology. Consequently, most provinces and territories in Canada (all except Yukon) have passed legislation that clarifies that an apology is not an admission of guilt. Initially, this appeared to be a positive situation, allowing professionals, governments, and businesses to express regret without consequence.
However, it seems that in the past few years, “I’m sorry” has rolled off the tongues of high-ranking politicians, civil servants, and even the pope. One can hardly turn on the radio or open a newspaper without reading about the latest apology. More recently, we have begun to hear criticisms of these apologies.
Many of the criticisms are raised in relation to the deplorable treatment of First Nations people around the world. In June of 2021, Canadians were dismayed that the pope would not offer an apology for the treatment of children in Canada’s residential schools, even after intense media coverage of what is presumed to be the discovery of the bodies of 215 children. Yet in 2022, when the pope finally uttered the magical words “I’m sorry,” the truth about apology and forgiveness was revealed. It was not enough.
Some believe that the pope must apologize on Canadian soil. But perhaps the words of Gene Gottfriedson, former altar boy whose mother is a residential school survivor, best describe the challenge: “His words may be what some want to hear, but there are no repercussions for what happened. No money in the world can take the pain and bad memories from the people who had these issues.” More recently, we heard interim Toronto Police Chief James Ramer apologize to Toronto’s black and Indigenous communities for systemic racism in the Toronto Police Department. However, members of the black community were swift to reject the apology, demanding instead change.
“In this Act:
“apology” means an expression of sympathy or regret, a statement that one is sorry or any other words or actions indicating contrition or commiseration, whether or not the words or actions admit or imply an admission of fault in connection with the matter to which the words or actions relate;
Effect of apology on liability
2 (1)An apology made by or on behalf of a person in connection with any matter
(a)does not constitute an express or implied admission of fault or liability by the person in connection with that matter,
(b)does not constitute an acknowledgement of liability in relation to that matter for the purposes of section 24 of the Limitation Act,
(c)does not, despite any wording to the contrary in any contract of insurance and despite any other enactment, void, impair or otherwise affect any insurance coverage that is available, or that would, but for the apology, be available, to the person in connection with that matter, and
(d)must not be taken into account in any determination of fault or liability in connection with that matter.
(2)Despite any other enactment, evidence of an apology made by or on behalf of a person in connection with any matter is not admissible in any court as evidence of the fault or liability of the person in connection with that matter.
Medicine is an area in which apologies are often sought, but still infrequently provided. It is estimated that for every 18 hospitalizations, one patient will experience harm. However, physicians remain reluctant to issue an apology. Despite Canada’s apology acts, physicians remain fearful of litigation. Other reluctancies stem from the fear of losing respect, which can be traumatizing for doctors who see an error as a personal failure. Apologizing is a crucial step in healing; however, a poor-quality apology can have a detrimental effect on patients and families.
Politicians have also jumped onto the apology bandwagon. For example:
- MP Shafqat Ali is sorry for participating in a virtual meeting from a bathroom.
- MP Will Amos is sorry for appearing naked on a zoom call. (Twice.)
- Ontario Premier Doug Ford expressed remorse that he did not condemn MPP Rod Phillips’ trip to St. Barts during one of Ontario’s pandemic lockdowns.
Where previously they feared to tread, politicians now trip over themselves apologizing for personal and professional missteps. In fact, Prime Minister Trudeau has attracted international attention and even mockery for the frequency of his apologies for both personal and governmental wrongdoings.
So what is to become of the apology? The jury is still out. However, without meaningful action and change, the apology provides little to no benefit to the harmed party. Like the Catholic confessional, it appears that the benefit is to the sinner — providing a salve for a bad conscience, a get-out-of-jail-free card.