Matt James, Jordan Stanger-Ross et al., Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives, the Impermanent Apologies Approach, and the Politics of Political Apologies [2017 C4eJ 13] (Symposium)

[☛ watch the video | read the rest of the symposium on The Ethics of Apology: Interdisciplinary & International Perspectives]

Matt James, Jordan Stanger-Ross, and the Landscapes of Injustice Research Collective*

As befits its billing, The University of Toronto Centre for Ethics workshop, “The Ethics of Apology: Interdisciplinary and International Perspectives,” helped participants to think about their subject from unanticipated and rewarding new angles.[1] In this short paper, we want to take the opportunity to place our own research in dialogue with some of the findings and arguments from the workshop. We believe that we have gained from this engagement a better sense of the variegated phenomenology and ethics of apology across different disciplines and areas of apologetic practice, and ultimately, a better understanding of our own particular topic—political apology.

Our contribution to the workshop drew on what was then our forthcoming paper, now published in the journal, Human Rights Review, titled, “Impermanent Apologies: On the Dynamics of Timing and Public Knowledge in Political Apology.”[2] By referring to impermanency in political apology, we call attention to an important but underappreciated aspect of political apology processes. Impermanency often becomes apparent when a political apology’s account of wrongdoing comes under significant pressure, say, when activist or survivor groups attack notable factual or interpretive shortcomings of the apology. Our research suggests that political apologies seem disposed to encourage these and indeed longer-run dynamics of critical probing and contestation.

Unless they are unsolicited utterances, tossed out casually in the absence of prior historical justice demands or discussions, political apologies occur within broader processes of inter-group negotiation and redress that, whatever their inadequacies, will often furnish community and survivor groups with funding, momentum, and heightened civic visibility. The groups may in turn use these gains to shed further critical light on problems with the factual understandings or interpretations of injustice proffered in the original apology. Whether directly or indirectly, apology processes also often lead to the establishment of related academic research projects or bodies of inquiry that promote yet further criticism, questioning, and exposure. As our article puts it, political apologies “do some of their most vital work when they help to undermine themselves.”

The impermanency perspective challenges the pervasive assumption that political apologies are acts of finality that “close the books” on histories of injustice. The notion that political apologies enclose past injustice is shared by unlikely allies. Activist and progressive critics often scorn apologies as cynical offerings that aim to score political points and avoid more profound challenges to ongoing structural inequalities by silencing “the writhing conflict of the past.”[3] For their part, states and dominant groups may find apology attractive because they hope, in effect, that the critics are right about the power of apologetic performances. For example, in his recent apology to former students from five Newfoundland and Labrador residential schools excluded from the 2006 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hoped that his statement would allow survivors to “finally get some closure” and that the event might “mark the beginning of a new chapter in our history.”[4] In contrast, our idea of impermanency offers a more realistic understanding of what political apologies are apt to achieve and entail. As likely to confound the hopes of officials as they are the predictions of the critics, apologies are inherently unstable deeds, interventions in disputed histories and relations which are disposed more to fuel difficult processes of “working through” the past than to provide “quick wins” for those striving to master it.[5]

Our article illustrates and analyzes these dynamics of iterative apologetic impermanency by exploring two Canadian political apologies and the longer histories of activism and state response surrounding them. The Canadian federal government’s 2008 statement on residential schools took responsibility and stated regret for forcing generations of Native to attend coercive and abuse-rife institutions that were designed to separate them from their families, languages, and cultures; it declared that the “policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country.” The second key focus of our analysis is the City of Vancouver’s offering of 2013, which apologized for “complicity … inaction, and … failing to protect” victims from the federal government’s policy of internment during the Second World War, a policy to which the entire Japanese Canadian community of British Columbia was subject.

Both apologies were responses to community demands, and both responded to the adamant insistence of aging survivors on the urgency of timely action. Both also followed predecessor apologies that had failed in various ways to satisfy key actors. For example, the 2008 residential schools apology, which admitted the schools’ assimilatory intent and the long-term damage caused by the attack on cultures, languages, and families, offered a narrative of wrongdoing and harm that addressed many of the weaknesses of Ottawa’s 1998 “Statement of Reconciliation”; the latter offering had apologized only for the physical and sexual abuse that occurred in residential schools. For its part, the 2013 Vancouver internment apology, which followed internment apologies from the federal government in 1988 and the province of British Columbia in 2012, heeded demands for Vancouver—the urban hub of Japanese-Canadian community prior to the devastating “dispersal” effected by the interment—to break its silence on the injustices. Thus, our main apology cases came after earlier, predecessor utterances had failed to effect closure. The 1998 residential schools “quasi-apology” sparked battles over its failure to take responsibility for the core intent and impact of the residential schools policy; the 1988 Canadian and 2012 BC internment apologies served to highlight the continued apologetic silence of the jurisdiction at the geographic and demographic centre of internment.

The early episodes also contributed positively to later struggles. For example, the battles surrounding them produced new organizations and networks that made the groups involved better placed to develop and press their historical justice demands. The initial struggles changed Canadian society as well. The direct results of the early calls for redress and apology were the 1988 internment redress package and 1998 Statement of Reconciliation. These responses involved significant funding for organizations, such as the National Association of Japanese Canadians, Canadian Race Relations Foundation, and Aboriginal Healing Foundation, which then worked via conferences, publication programs, political participation, and media interventions to promote civic discourses and climates conducive to further historical reckoning.

Dynamics of apologetic impermanency thus led directly to the 2008 residential schools and 2013 Vancouver internment cases with which our article is most centrally concerned. Moreover, the apologies provided further fuel for these dynamics. Although Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 2008 residential schools apology was more comprehensive and detailed than its 1998 predecessor, critics observed major shortcomings. In particular, they assailed Harper for failing to admit that the residential schools policy was part of a specifically colonial assault on Indigenous capacities for self-determination and resistance, embedded within and in service of Canada’s long-running focus on exploiting Indigenous lands and destroying Indigenous sovereignties. Seven years later, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which was called into being by the same survivor mobilization that had led to the 1998 and 2008 apologies, issued its six-volume final report. Using survivor statements and a mix of archival and secondary research, the report gave the imprimatur, resources, and expertise of an officially mandated truth commission to the interpretation—hitherto foreign to most Canadians—of residential schooling as part of an agenda of cultural genocide aimed at colonial dispossession and conquest.

For its part, the 2013 Vancouver apology admitted to a wartime “racist climate” and to council’s silence and complicity in the face of internment. This passive framing and relative absence of detail prompted a community-engaged research project, known as “Landscapes of Injustice”—funded by SSHRC, headquartered at the University of Victoria, and directed by one of the authors of this paper, Jordan Stanger-Ross—to inquire more deeply into the actions of City of Vancouver representatives and officials during the internment. In subsequent publications, media interviews, and presentations to city staff and politicians, Landscapes of Injustice researchers explained their findings, which showed that the city’s role and responsibility went far beyond the minimalist account mooted in the apology. The wholesale dispossession of Japanese Canadian property during the 1940s—the homes, businesses, real estate, vehicles, boats, and personal property of some 23,000 people—had not even been part of the original internment policy. Instead, the federal government decided to force the sale of everything only after the City of Vancouver had mobilized an array of research, planning, and persuasion efforts aimed at inducing the federal government to expand the internment program in this way. Partly as a result of Vancouver’s initial and inadequate apology, its critical role in the dispossession then emerged into public discussion.

Thus, in both the 2008 and 2013 cases, subsequent advances in public knowledge laid bare major factual and interpretive inadequacies of the apologies. Some might say that a different sequencing, one that would have placed the apologies after rather than before the systematic probing provided, respectively, by the TRC and Landscapes of Injustice, might have produced better apologies. On this counterfactual reasoning, the 2008 residential schools apology would have been forced to grapple interpretively with the cultural genocide finding, while the 2013 internment apology would have been forced to address the facts surrounding Vancouver’s causal responsibility for the dispossession. Indeed, these cases help us to understand why key scholars in the transitional justice literature argue that political apologies should be timed to follow processes of robust official inquiry, such as truth commissions; these scholars are concerned to ensure that regretful accounts of injustice from states are informed maximally by prior authoritative findings about the wrongs.[6] Although we find the concern laudable, we disagree with this perspective.

Real-world exigencies mean that there is almost never the right time for an informationally and interpretively definitive, one-time-only political apology. Aging survivors and the fleeting nature of political opportunity can make apologetic openings a matter of urgency for the most directly affected. Assuming that the sequencing of full-inquiry-then-apology is feasible, public officials and dominant groups may still try to dodge the findings with minimalist mea culpas of tokenistic distraction. For example, this seemed the case with the 1998 Statement of Reconciliation, which refused to take responsibility for the cultural assault orchestrated and effected by the residential schools policy, even though the prior 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples had dedicated a chapter of its final report to documenting that assault. But there is little reason to expect that the opposite sort of post-inquiry apology scenario would have produced permanency and perfection, either; as we go on to observe below, as indeed have many scholars before us, the findings and interpretations of even the most exemplary investigative processes are amended, expanded, and even superseded over the passage of time.

The notion of a final political apology—one that reckons with the full historical record, achieving factual and interpretive definitiveness in its taking of responsibility for past wrongdoing—runs against a core reality of state apologetic practice: its reliance upon historical research. As Steven Maynard reminded us at the workshop, processual iterativeness is fundamental to the historian’s enterprise: historical research and analysis tend not toward finality and closure, but rather towards ongoing revision and reinterpretation. For its part, Maynard’s workshop paper highlights, among other things, the remarkable difficulty of historical research in the recent case of Canada’s 2017 LGBTQ2+ apology.[7] Bedeviled by deep factual and interpretive difficulties before it was even delivered, the apology rested on an information base consisting of a vast archive of past anti-gay cases and proceedings containing impossibly opaque accounts forged in contexts of vicious prejudice. Yet the federal government still pursued closure: it followed its apology with a bill that, in order both to repudiate the relevant discriminatory history and honour the victims, mandated the destruction of the legal records. The Canadian Historical Association responded with an open letter condemning the threat “to historical scholarship and research in the present and the future.”[8]

Although the outcome of the controversy remained at the time of this paper’s writing unknown, three points seemed clear. First, the controversy highlights the futility of searching for apologetic definitiveness amidst the opaqueness of capacious state records forged in discrimination and hate. Second, it indicates that Ottawa’s apology sparked renewed critical scrutiny of the pertinent historical records. Third, it conveys the potential dangers to research that can arise from a state fixation on closure. The expunging of records, unlike the act of apology itself, does threaten seriously to impede informed discussion.

We also know that past areas of significant historical engagement, including those dealing with major state injustices, such as American slavery or Nazi atrocity, have generated deep veins of ongoing empirical discovery and theoretical innovation. This is in part because, as Nick Smith observes: “Harms caused by collectives such as nations can present particularly challenging factual investigations.”[9] But it is also because, even when the relevant facts are known, the past is constantly reinterpreted in the light of new or previously ignored findings and perspectives. In cultural critic Michael Rothberg’s words, “memory is a contemporary phenomenon, something that, while concerned with the past, happens in the present.”[10] If, as Smith suggests, the research challenges of robust political apologies “can occupy teams of historians,” such teams are more likely to deliver ongoing, iterative, and multi-vocal debate than they are a definitive and final accounting of past wrongs.[11]

The impermanency perspective responds to these realities and concerns. Our cases show us that opportunities for informational or interpretive perfection are rare, and survivors often lack the luxury of waiting. Although public knowledge of the relevant wrongs and crimes may evolve, understandings of causal and reparative responsibility will still tend to be patchy and disputed. A key difficulty in this regard is that political apologies stem typically from long-run relations of domination and inequality among complex, internally plural collectives. Cindy Holder’s workshop paper shows that these relations raise problems, ranging from the practical to the epistemological, that make assigning responsibility in political apology both extremely important and yet immensely difficult.[12] Making things worse, officials, institutions, and publics will often manipulate or at least rely passively on these difficulties. Taken in conjunction with Nick Smith’s workshop contributions and previous publications, these considerations about assigning responsibility help us to see why Smith’s ideal of categorical apology is so particularly elusive in political apologies, which will almost inevitably be in some ways informationally or interpretively inadequate or incomplete.[13] In terms of our own research, the Vancouver internment case shows us that significant new facts about causal responsibility can be unearthed even decades after resolutions that seemed at the time definitive. Its residential schools counterpart shows us that identifying and reckoning with the underlying systems of injustice that give rise to particular historical wrongs is both extremely urgent and immensely difficult.

Our analysis shows additionally why even sneakily minimalist apologies from intransigent states will often fail to effect the closure that officialdom desires and progressive critics fear. Political apologies are disposed to undermine themselves because they emerge from longer-run processes of historical justice struggle and inquiry that amplify the voices of communities and survivors and that motivate subsequent enterprises of questioning, reinterpretation, and exposure. Rather than “closing the books” and “ending sad chapters,” to reference just two of the tropes punctured in Mayana Slobodian’s workshop paper on Canada’s TRC, political apologies tend to open opportunities for still more probing understandings and accounts.[14] To be clear, we are not asserting iterative progress toward increasingly robust engagement with past injustice as a guaranteed outcome of political apology. The factors at play in social movement success generally—on the one hand, the group’s economic clout, support base, leadership, networks, and framing strategies, and, on the other, the opposition strategies, actors, discursive contexts, and political opportunities that it encounters—will also shape the careers and fates of political apologies.[15] In this, political apologies are similar to positive judicial decisions for social movement claimants in rights cases: what matters is less the ruling itself than the longer-run vigour of the political mobilization surrounding it.[16] Thus, the distinctive and specific claim in “Impermanent Apologies” is that political apologies are disposed to foster dynamics that militate towards iterative opening rather than to closure, these other factors notwithstanding.

So how does our impermanency perspective interact with other papers from the workshop and what might it imply for apology scholarship in general? As the contributions of Teddy Harrison, Patrick Keilty, Mark Kingwell, John Paul Ricco, and Simon Stern all explain, notions of apology across the global North have long been informed—for better or for worse, depending on the account—by a Christian economy of penitence, self-abasement, expiation, and forgiveness.[17] While surely surviving in various ways, these resonances tend in the world of political apology to be muffled by the much greater presence of a non-Christian—to invoke Kingwell’s contribution, one might even say ancient or Nietzschean—preoccupation with worldly honour and power.[18] Groups seeking apologies are not primarily concerned to elicit the state’s sorrow and, as the iterative historical justice struggles charted in our research suggest, still less do they care to bestow forgiveness. As Tavuchis’s pioneering work reminds us, the protagonists in political apology processes act, with varying degrees of adequacy and appropriateness, as representatives or delegates of collectives.[19] They tend to be less concerned with each other’s emotions than with defending what they perceive to be their side’s interests when it comes to the robustness, prominence, and future implications of apology.

Officialdom may often have the upper hand in the exchanges, but these are not sentimental rituals of closure. Consider the apology of Toronto police chief Mark Saunders, criticized roundly at the workshop, for his force’s devastatingly homophobic bathhouse raids of 1981. A key problem, as Patrick Keilty’s workshop paper observes, is that, just months after the apology, the Toronto force raided local cruising grounds, betraying a continued insensitivity to the heteronormative inequalities and biases that Saunders’s apology had just sought credit for repudiating.[20] But was the apology a quick win that gave the police expiation and forgiveness? As the contrast drawn at the workshop between the promise of Saunders’s words and the reality of his force’s conduct might suggest, the apology seemed rather to become an accountability resource for calling out ongoing injustice and harm.[21]

With respect both to affect and to accountability, considerations change when we turn to the terrain of law, which Teddy Harrison, Nick Smith, and Simon Stern canvass in their papers.[22] In contrast to cases of political apology, the apologetic actor in criminal law contexts is not a delegate or a representative but an actual individual in their own person, who stands accused or convicted of having transgressed individually. This difference means that displays of penitent apologetic emotion may be of greater meaning and relevance than in cases of delegated or representative apologies: to judges pronouncing sentences and to communities thinking about the proceedings, if not always to individual victims. The criminal law context means also that the offender or accused is called to address not only an individual victim or group of victims, but the whole community whose law underpins the proceedings. To again invoke Tavuchis, whereas political apologies are “from the many to the many,” criminal law offerings are always in some sense “from the one to the many.”[23] This difference means that criminal law apologies are oriented to a different kind of accountability than that which is most central to their political counterparts.

To better appreciate the accountability difference, observe that political apologies typically involve not only past wrongs but also wrongful inter-group relationships; apology-seekers keep the wrongs salient as part of their ongoing struggles for justice and change in those relationships.[24] Further, at least on the specific terrain of domestic political apology, the entity that apologizes—normatively, institutionally, and in an ongoing, continuous sense—is supposed to be accountable to recipients: citizens owe no rights of closure to states, which instead owe constant duties of disclosure to them. Criminal law is different. As Nick Smith notes, because criminal law apologies array the might of the state against the lone accused or offender, they can convey undertones “of authoritarianism, social control, humiliation, and self-degradation at the foot of the gallows.”[25] Thus, the iterative impermanency so central to our understanding of political apology would seem inappropriate in many criminal law cases. While Smith’s “categorically apologetic offender reforms and forbears from reoffending over her lifetime,” it would be unjust to require that offender, unless perhaps if the crime is truly heinous, to issue repeated formal apologies at constantly mandated intervals over that lifetime.[26] Prima facie, the apologetic criminal is entitled to some measure of closure.

Moving from questions of criminal to civil liability, including crown liability, Douglas Elliott suggests yet a different perspective on the relationship between apologies and closure.[27] Citing as a key example the tragic case of the infection of thousands of people with HIV and hepatitis C as a result of blood transfusions overseen by the Canadian Red Cross, he observes that lawyers routinely warn their clients against apologizing, lest the client suffer the liabilities and penalties that the lawyer insists will follow. But the assumption that apologies contribute distinctively and generatively to longer-run processes of common or civil law reckoning is, in Elliott’s view, empirically false: “Not once, in all of Canadian legal history,” he writes, “has an official apology resulted in civil liability.”[28] But if we consider the more diffuse political and civic implications of regretful institutional engagement with past injustices, matters look different. First, at least outside the ranks of the legal profession, anyway, people seem to assume that political apologies resolve difficult histories, not unleash retributive cavalcades. Second, political apologies seem to promote in the political sphere the outcome that lawyers fear in the courts: namely, further endeavours of interpretation and investigation focused on the wrongs. Thus, reading Elliott’s paper in conjunction with ours suggests that the calculus of apology in institutional contexts is mixed. Elliott’s finding that institutional apologies do not lead to legal liability gives prospective comfort to institutions contemplating apologies; our argument that political apologies do not lead to political closure offers some reassurance for groups demanding them.[29] But the impermanency perspective suggests also that apologetic institutional actors are likely to be disappointed if quick wins are what they seek.

Simon Stern’s topic, apologies in anti-discrimination and equal-opportunity law, involves an interesting blend of considerations from the criminal and political apology contexts.[30] One set of considerations has to do with fact that the apology recipients in Stern’s cases are individuals, who are often motivated by considerations of closure; in Stern’s words, deeply personal, emotional reasons make them want “to see their experience as prompting the condemnation of the community, and to see the wrongdoers placed among those articulating the condemnation.”[31] Individual survivors and community members in political apology cases may harbour similar motivations, but these will not be shared uniformly among those seeking the apology, and they will typically be ancillary to the larger power and justice goals of the group. A different set of considerations for apology recipients in Stern’s cases has to do with the emotional sincerity of the apologizer. Stern’s research indicates that sincerity is not always a core consideration for anti-discrimination plaintiffs; here, affective considerations take second place to the “signalling function” of the apology, that is, to the social lowering of the wrongdoer and the concomitant elevation of the victim that apology conveys.[32]

We would suggest that this status aspect is important in anti-discrimination cases precisely because these cases stem from the patterned social relations of subordination and disrespect that so often concern community campaigns for political apology. Conversely, because the potential apology recipient in Stern’s cases is an individual rather than a mobilized collective, emotional and affective motivations loom comparatively larger in his analysis than in ours. This comparison thus helps us to see the hybrid nature of defendant apologies in anti-discrimination law: with an impeccably even-handed simultaneity, they are both personal and political.

Comparing corporate to political apologies sheds further light on our collectively shared research topic. Like states, corporations do not particularly enjoy  scrutiny and exposure of their wrongful actions. Unlike states, corporations exist in a system of market relations that, in capitalist societies, is believed to provide the accountability system best suited to governing their conduct, supplemented, but only supplemented, by law and regulation when necessary, and only when absolutely necessary. As Nicola Lacetera’s workshop paper puts it, to the extent that there is faith “in the ‘invisible hand’ that leads markets to work efficiently, and [that leads] societies to derive the benefits from these markets,” corporations in capitalism are always already accountable.[33] This reliance on public faith, though, breeds vulnerability; it makes apologies particularly “risky and costly” for corporations because of the unwanted scrutiny apology may invite.[34] As Lacetera explains: “People may ask why a company is issuing an apology, and whether for example this is a way to selectively reveal information while hiding other relevant details, to focus attention only on some alleged wrongdoings in order to downplay or obfuscate others, and so on.”[35]

Thus, Lacetera’s paper suggests that corporate apologies may well summon the same iterative dynamics of probing and exposure that we associate with political apology. But there is a crucial difference. To public officials, apologetic impermanency might seem merely an unwelcome addition to rather than qualitative departure from practices of accountability that are already intrinsic and familiar. Through elections, legislative debates, parliamentary committees, routinized systems of consultative relation with interest groups and policy communities, and the like, public officials are called more or less constantly to explain and defend their, actions, inactions, and choices.[36] For corporations, by contrast, apologies threaten to initiate novel dynamics of public questioning well beyond the familiar accountability of the invisible hand. Making matters worse is that apology threatens to turn market accountability itself against the corporation, leading not to the much cherished end point of closure but to boycotts, plummeting share prices, new regulatory scrutiny, and worse. Thus, whereas apologies from public officials are not distinct in kind from the regular call-and-response of democratic politics, a repeatedly apologetic firm is an outlier, a flailing entity reckoning with demise.[37]

Market relations underpin the distinctiveness of corporate apology in another way. Decision making, labour processes, and supply chains in capitalism are shrouded in an opacity that the risk averse public administrator can only envy. At the same time, corporations face a type of conflict with which public sector entities are comparatively unfamiliar. As Daryl Koehn reports in her paper, “Attempts … to extort firms or sellers are … widespread”; “‘[s]ocial media blackmailing’ of firms is not uncommon”; “[c]ustomers threaten to post unfavorable reviews if hotels or restaurants do not give them free meals and room upgrades,” and so on.[38] This peculiar combination of vulnerability and opacity means that cases of corporate apology are often subject to an endemically confused murkiness. As Koen explains, difficulties of interpretation, responsibility assignment, and factual investigation are so severe as to require a specially tailored definition of corporate apology. Accordingly, Koehn’s definition of apology refers, rightly in our view, to “perceived” wrongdoing: a qualification that would seem untenable in political apology, which deals with highly public histories of genocide, internment, and systematic persecution.[39]

Thus, encountering the diverse work of colleagues at the workshop has highlighted for us the distinctiveness of political apology in richly unexpected ways. Encountering the world of corporate apology points up how relatively assimilable political apologies are to textbook expectations of liberal-democratic accountability, even as the political apology literature itself is rife with references to the phenomenon’s novelty. Although neoliberalism is fond of contrasting markets and states to the detriment of the latter, comparing apology across the two domains yields a very different picture, highlighting as it does the relative absence of public dialogical answerability in the corporate world. In empirical fact if not in moral desirability, the hand to which Adam Smith referred is invisible and the sphere governed by it private. At the same time, we could read the contributions of Koehn and Lacetera as identifying the incipiently gentle threat that a trend toward corporate apology might pose to this state of affairs.[40]

Encountering the work of colleagues on corporate, criminal, civil, and equal-employment apology has helped us to see more clearly that political apologies are quintessentially the delegated or representative acts of public officials in difficult interaction with politically mobilized collectives. One conclusion we draw from the encounter is that, in contrast to cases where one or both protagonists are individuals acting qua individuals, considerations of emotion and affect in political apology take second place to quintessentially public matters of status and power. Political apology would seem in this sense to have more in common with the ancient world’s self-avowed preoccupation with honour, rank, and glory than with the penitent self-exposure of the Christian apology culture that ostensibly succeeded it.

In conclusion, learning from the other papers at the workshop has also helped us better to appreciate political scientist Melissa Nobles’s point that domestic political apologies are all about membership: they address long-run wrongful relationships between the political community and some complex collective that is somehow within it.[41] We have been struck particularly by the importance for political apologies and political apology studies of the simple point that the state, constitutionally if not empirically, stands typically in a relationship of democratic accountability to the recipient group. Thus, unlike, say, the run-of-the-mill criminally accused, the state—whose apologies carry what we have argued are felicitous dynamics of impermanency—deserves no right of closure. But let us conclude this short paper by saying that neither do we as authors; our reflections are surely no less defeasible than the apologies we analyze.

* Matt James, University of Victoria Department of Political Science (; Jordan Stanger-Ross, University of Victoria Department of History (

[1] We thank Markus Dubber for his kind invitation and gracious hosting at the workshop.

[2] Matt James, Jordan Stanger-Ross, and the LOI Research Collective, “Impermanent Apologies: On the Dynamics of Timing and Public Knowledge in Political Apology,” Human Rights Review (2018). For further evidence, argument, and citations in support of the empirical claims in the present paper please see this article.

[3] Alexander Keller Hirsch, “The Agon of Reconciliation,” in Theorizing Post-Conflict Reconciliation: Agonism, Restitution, and Repair, ed. Alexander Keller Hirsch (London: Routledge, 2012), 2. Also see Jenny Edkins, Trauma and the Memory of Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) and Michel-Rolph Trouillot, “Abortive Rituals: Historical Apologies in the Global Era, Interventions 2:2 (2000): 171–186.

[4] See Remarks by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to apologize on behalf of the Government of Canada to former students of the Newfoundland and Labrador residential schools, Nov. 24, 2017.

[5] On the classic distinction between working through and mastering the past, see Jeffrey K. Olick, “What Does it Mean to Normalize the Past? Official Memory in German Politics since 1989,” in States of Memory: Continuities, Conflicts, and Transformations in National Retrospection, ed. Jeffrey K. Olick (Durham NC: Duke 2003). “Quick wins” became infamous in BC politics after a leaked memo revealed that the governing Liberals planned to offer political apologies for “quick wins” in so-called ethnic communities. The episode is discussed in Nick Smith’s workshop keynote, “Apologies as Remedies, Apologies as Weapons: Considerations for the Trudeau Administration,” 2017 C4eJ 7.

[6] R. Corranza, C. Correa, and E. Naughton, More than Words: Apologies as a Form of Reparation, Report prepared for the International Center for Transitional Justice (2015),; Robert Rotberg, “Apologies, Truth Commissions, and Inter-state Conflict, in Taking Wrongs Seriously: Apologies and Reconciliation, ed. Elazar Barkan and Alexander Karn (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006); Ruti Teitel, “The Transitional Apology,” in ibid.

[7] Steven Maynard, “To Forgive and Forget: Homonationalism, Hegemony, and History in the Gay Apology,” 2017 C4eJ 11.

[8] Adele Perry (President, CHA), Letter to Scott Brison, Jan. 12, 2018.

[9] Nick Smith, “Political Apologies and Categorical Apologies,” in On the Uses and Abuses of Political Apologies, ed. Mihaela Mihai and Mathias Thaler (Houndmills UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 33.

[10] Michael Rothberg, Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), 3-4.

[11] Smith, “Political Apologies,” 33.

[12] Cindy Holder, “Whose Wrong is it Anyway? Reflecting on the Public-ness of Public Apologies,” 2017 C4eJ 8.

[13] E.g., Nick Smith, I Was Wrong: The Meaning of Apologies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

[14] Mayana Slobodian, “Official Apology, Official Denial: Making Sense of Canada’s Truth Commission,” 2017 C4eJ 12.

[15] Donnatella Della Porta and Mario Diani, Social Movements: An Introduction, 2d ed. (Malden MA: Blackwell, 2006).

[16] Miriam Smith, Ghosts of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council: Group Politics and Charter Litigation in Canadian Political Science,” Canadian Journal of Political Science 35 (2002): 3-42.

[17] Teddy Harrison, “Removing Insult from Injury: Apologies and Violence in Criminal Justice,” 2017 C4eJ 6; Patrick Keilty, “Sorry/Not Sorry: Sexual Regulation and Apology at the Toronto Police Service”; Mark Kingwell, “Apologies: A Stylistic Investigation”; John Paul Ricco, “On Queer Forgiveness,” 2017 C4eJ 4; Simon Stern, “Atonement, Closure, and Narrative,” 2017 C4eJ 5.

[18] Kingwell, “Apologies.”

[19] Nicholas Tavuchis, Mea Culpa: A Sociology of Apology and Reconciliation (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991).

[20] Keilty, “Sorry/Not Sorry.”

[21] For example, three stories commenting on the reception of the apology appeared in the first 10 items yielded by a Google search for : one headline called it a “starting place,” one referred to “mixed feelings,” and the other was about “declining” the apology. Search performed 12 January 2018. For a more extended argument making similar claims about the 2008 residential schools apology, see Matt James,“Narrative Robustness, Post-Apology Conduct, and Canada’s 1998 and 2008 Residential Schools Apologies,” in Palgrave Handbook of State-Sponsored History after 1945, ed. Berber Bevernage and Nico Wouters (2018).

[22] Harrison, “Removing Insult”; Nick Smith,“Guidelines for Evaluating Apologies and Remorse in Criminal Contexts: Summary Version for Practitioners,” 2017 C4eJ 9; Stern, “Atonement.”

[23] Tavuchis, Mea Culpa.

[24] Melissa Nobles, The Politics of Official Apologies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

[25] Smith, “Guidelines.”

[26] Ibid.

[27] R. Douglas Elliott, “So Sorry: The Legal Myths and Social Realities of the Official Apology,” 2017 C4eJ 10.

[28] Ibid.

[29] The presence in many Canadian provinces of indemnity legislation preventing the fact of apology from being used in civil proceedings against the apologizer offers further institutional comfort.

[30] Stern, “Atonement.”

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Nicola Lacetera, “Business Apologies and the Ethics and Narrative of Trust,” 2017 C4eJ 3.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] This is not to deny the significant crisis of liberal democratic accountability; for the Canadian context see the many recent works of public administration scholar Donald Savoie.

[37] Of course a politician apologizing for an individual transgression qua individual might be in an analogous position, but such apologies are not truly political apologies involving past conduct of state or the official’s representative or delegate function. For the distinction see A. Bagdonas, “Historical State Apologies,” in Palgrave Handbook of State-sponsored History after 1945, ed. Berber Bevernage and Nico Wouters (London: Palgrave,  2018).

[38] Daryl Koehn, “Preliminary Thoughts on Types of Apologies: Interpersonal, Corporate, and Collective,” 2017 C4eJ 2.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid; Lacetera, “Business Apologies.”

[41] Nobles, “Politics of Official Apologies.”


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