Sorry, Not Sorry
Justin Trudeau was only six months into his prime ministership when the jokes about his apologies began. The earliest commentary I can find is a Last Week Tonight segment where John Oliver recounts the three apologies (issued over the course of two days) that Trudeau felt compelled to give after a very minor scuffle occurred on the floor of Parliament. The BBC joined in on the fun in 2018 with a video montage of all the apologies Trudeau had issued to date. Now, the emergence of the WE charity scandal is giving us all a mid-summer break from wall-to-wall COVID coverage, and Trudeau’s apologies are again raising smiles (or perhaps other facial expressions) behind our masks.
Although Trudeau’s apologies tend to get covered with an air of humor, there’s a pretty sophisticated communications strategy behind a lot of the apologies he gives. There are actually two types of Trudeau apology; the broad apologies he gives for misdeeds committed by Canada (usually before he was born) and the much narrower apologies he gives when caught in one of his own ethical imbroglios.
Trudeau has delivered seven official apologies on behalf of the Canadian state, four of these concern actions taken against various First Nations groups*, two were related to Canadian refusal to accept refugees during the world wars** and one addressed persecution of LGBTQ2 Canadians by the state. Each of these apologies have been exquisitely stage-managed affairs. (When Trudeau apologized to the Tsilhqot’in National Government for the execution of chiefs during the Chilcotin war, he rode to the event on a black horse). Additionally, these apologies usually involve the delivery of an expansive speech by Trudeau where he gives the historical context behind the apology and explains the damage caused to the victims of the event under discussion. As a bonus to the generally good press Trudeau gets for delivering these apologies, these events also serve to distract from negative news that Trudeau is arguably more accountable for as prime minister. For example, Trudeau’s apology for Canada’s refusal to accept immigrants from the Komagata Maru during WWI completely overshadowed news that came out the same day that the RCMP had been extra-legally spying on journalists in Quebec.
These official apologies can be contrasted with the numerous personal apologies Trudeau has had to give for his own behavior. These mea culpas have a completely different character. They are usually only issued under duress as an act of damage control. For example, it wasn’t until a report from the ethics commissioner found Trudeau in violation of the Conflict of Interest Act that he apologized for visiting Aga Khan’s private island for vacation. Unlike Trudeau’s official apologies, which demonstrate an understanding of the systemic effects bad decisions by powerful people can have on a society, Trudeau’s personal apologies usually seek to de-emphasize the power he has as Prime Minister of Canada. After a second ethics investigation found Trudeau in contravention of the Conflict of Interest Act again, for actions he took during the SNC-Lavalin affair, Trudeau issued a limited apology to Jody Wilson-Raybould for abuse she faced on social media. He didn’t, however, seem to see any problem with the fact his government had amended the criminal code (using an omnibus budget bill) to create deferred prosecution agreements that would allow SNC-Lavalin to side-step accepting criminal responsibility for bribery it had committed in Libya (and thereby allow SNC-Lavalin to continue to bid on lucrative Canadian government contracts). Nor did he feel the need to apologize for personally attempting to influence the Attorney General, instead he said; “I’m not going to apologize for standing up for Canadian jobs, because that’s my job”. (A serious person might have given some consideration to what happens to the jobs of people at companies that don’t illegally bribe their way into contracts if you allow companies that do to get away with it).
The comparison between Trudeau’s ‘official’ apologies and his ‘personal’ ones is so infuriating because, when he discusses the misdeeds of others, Trudeau shows he is perfectly capable of understanding how powerful people and institutions justify self-serving and selfish decisions. However, when it comes to his own actions he seems to be unable (or more likely, unwilling) to bring the same level of analysis to bear. Surprisingly, this tactic seems to have worked out pretty well for him so far. Despite two ethics reports finding him in violation of the law there have yet to be any legal repercussions for Trudeau personally. Trudeau was even able to muddle through the unearthing of multiple blackface photos during the last election by issuing an unintentionally hilarious apology where he refused to say just how many times he had blacked-up. If the past is any guide, Trudeau will likely attempt to get through the current WE charity scandal using tactics he has already honed; refusing to accept any criticism of his actions until forced to by the establishment of facts he can’t deny, followed by the issue of an apology that expresses abstract regret but rejects the idea Trudeau had any agency over what happened or should face any negative consequences.
Trudeau will apologize for Canada’s historical wrongs (to liberal applause) as much as you like, but when it comes to his own actions the only apology he seems able to muster is – ‘I’m sorry, but I don’t see why this is such a big deal’.
* (1) An apology to victims of Newfoundland and Labrador residential schools on 2017-11-24 (2) An apology for the execution of indiginous chiefs during the Chilcotin war on 2018-03-26 (3) An apology for the treatment of Inuit TB victims in the mid-20th century on 2018-11-02 (4) An apology for the conviction of Chief Poundmaker on 2019-04-23
** (1) An apology to Indian immigrants aboard the Komogata Maru who were denied entry to Canada during WWI on 2016-04-18 (2) An apology to Jewish refugees aboard the M.S. St Louis denied entry to Canada during WWII on 2018-11-07
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