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From apologies to aspiration

Real apologies are a starting line for a long journey, Alex Bishop writes.

Canada can apologize. We have apologized for falling short on environmental policy; on slowing the spread of COVID-19 and the rate of drug overdose; on Indigenous reconciliation after decades of displacement, cultural genocide and the gulag-like realities at residential schools; on bigotries religious and sexual; on wage gaps racial and gendered. However long this list may be, it is painful all the more.

Canada mustn’t simply apologize. Now we must aspire to be better. Genuinely. Insightfully. Shame is not enough. Trying is not enough. Apologies are not enough. Enough is enough. Decisively, we must change to restore our national pride. Journeying from shame to pride, healthy and well-earned, is possible like any journey; through earnest effort and action. And that action steers us away from apologies and toward amends.

Those thoughts, those experiences are those of reckoning with a pattern of addiction. Much about my past is coloured by shame; but also by the 12-step process by which I overcame it. No promise, even in good faith, was enough if it was the same promise and it met with the same result.

Apologies were not enough if they came not from remorse, but as thought-terminating clichés; semantic stop-signs in dysfunctional relationships preventing meaningful discussion or action.

“You’re right. I messed up.” “Why are you still angry?” “I’m sorry you feel that way.” I was hurting people.

Fredric Nietzsche said that a strong enough “why” could overcome any “how.” Probably not the first name one associates with the humbling experience of rehab. He had a point, though. My “why” was to stop hurting people and sincerity meant asking a question that I had not yet asked: “How?”

Martin Luther King said that peace was not the absence of tension, but the presence of justice. Stopping harm alone could not heal. Consciously healing had to replace harm. In 12-step lingo, “making amends.”

Even sincere apologies require sacrificing pride, but little else. What then? Canada must make amends. Individuals. Civic actors. Voters. All of us. We start by moving past apologies as a semantic stop signs. Real apologies are a starting line for a long journey. Making amends comes in four parts.

Acknowledging harm to marginalized Canadians is more than “sorry.” It’s a recognition from our government, our churches, all of us that we have harmed. Claiming otherwise, invokingindividual responsibility” to shout down the afflicted is not offering comfort. It is “I’m sorry you feel that way.” In re-empowering them, we must allow them to define their experience to us.

We must change Canada’s behaviour. Stop the harm. That means broadening the scope of what we honour and value.

Restitution is first-aid for those harmed. Policies of remedy mean real sacrifice. The purpose of healing the other, of making them whole remains paramount but sacrificing to make amends is catharsis. It means repaying a debt. Restitutive national sacrifice demonstrates our resolve to remedy the a rift in our national communion. As the Bard wrote: “How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a weary world.”

In practicing new behaviour of generosity, we replace old behaviour. We learn to care by doing. I am still making amends. I realize my choices cannot undo all of the harm that I have caused, but I choose generosity regardless. In my youth, I betrayed a teacher’s trust. The memory of cheating on a test has stayed with me. There was no obvious remedy. I still chose to reach out to that teacher. I will always treasure his acceptance of my request to volunteer. He was willing to see me as I now am and saw that I wanted to give. Let the world see Canada as a country that gives!

You will forgive me for channeling Aaron Sorkin from “The West Wing”: this is a time when Canadians of privilege, by embracing a change toward sacrifice and service, may become the new breed of heroes, not just to Canadians who lack but to Canadians who seek a national pride that rests upon national virtue.

Alex Bishop is a father to two, and provides advisory services to women and Indigenous-led companies.


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