Three Canadian politicians. Three public apologies. Who did it right?

Justin Trudeau, Anthony Rota and Doug Ford have all offered apologies for political blunders in the last week

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It’s been something of a bumper week for apologies in Canadian politics. On Sept. 21, Ontario Premier Doug Ford addressed the controversy surrounding the Greenbelt land swap, reversing the decision and offering an apology.

“I made a promise to you that I wouldn’t touch the Greenbelt,” he said during a news conference in Niagara Falls. “I broke that promise. And for that I’m very, very sorry.”

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Next up: Anthony Rota, now former Speaker of the House of Commons. On Sept. 22, he welcomed Second World War veteran Yaroslav Hunka to the House, unaware that the man had fought for the Nazis.

After an initial apology on Sunday, and with calls mounting for his resignation, Rota spoke in the House on Monday. “I wish to apologize to the House,” he said. “I am deeply sorry that I have offended many with my gesture and remarks.”

The following day, he submitted his resignation, stating: “I reiterate my profound regret for my error,” and adding, “I accept full responsibility for my actions.”

Then it was the Prime Minister’s turn. With the blunder making headlines worldwide – and especially in Russia, where it was being used to push Vladimir Putin’s line that Ukraine is a nest of Nazis – Justin Trudeau addressed reporters and then the House, offering up “unreserved apologies.”

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According to an etiquette expert, it was the right thing to do. “They’re doing so in a way that is very, very public,” says Quebec-based Julie Blais Comeau, an educator, author and executive coach. “And they’re very much aware of the consequences of not apologizing.”

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There are several ingredients to an effective apology, she notes. Words are important, but “it starts visually. Eye contact, that’s where we usually see the sincerity of the apology.”

Doug Ford
Ontario Premier Doug Ford announcing that he will be reversing his government’s decision to open the Greenbelt to developers. Photo by Tara Walton /The Canadian Press

But she cautions that an apology is only the first step in redressing a wrong. “Is there something that I can do to regain your confidence?” She says. “Because when you’re apologizing, you’re saying the trust in you has been broken, the expectations that were put upon you or the expectations that we have to our leaders. They acknowledge that they may not have lived up to the expectation, to the standard, to the research, to the correctness, to the righteousness, whatever it may be.” 

She adds: “It doesn’t mean they were ill intended. And I think that’s really important.” In our personal lives, we can cause offence without meaning to. “We just say something impulsive, but just by the reaction of the other we realize: Oh my God, I offended, I did not live up to the expectation. And then we recognize that we could have hurt. And then comes to the apology.”

Andrew McDougall, an assistant professor in Canadian Politics and Public Law at the University of Toronto, found Ford’s apology of particular interest.

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“It was a little bit different in the sense that he was apologizing for an actual policy,” said McDougall. “He’d broken his promise on the Greenbelt, and that had kind of gone south. And he was actually apologizing for that whole initiative. I think that’s a little more rare to see a politician take responsibility for a political program that they’ve launched.”

He added: “Generally, when politicians decide to backtrack or back off something, they’ll try to do it a little bit more subtly by saying: Maybe this needs a rethink, this is something that’s a little bit more complicated than we thought, we’ll get back to you. It’s a little rarer to say: We were wrong to try this at all.”

But Peter Woolstencroft, a professor emeritus in the politics department of the University of Waterloo, argues that Ford’s mea culpa felt “curated” to minimize political damage, and was less than sincere.

“I’m still waiting for Doug Ford’s understanding of what happened on the Greenbelt issue,” he says. “And why the government proceeded in the way it did. What mistakes did Doug Ford make? There’s no hand-on-the-heart, ‘this is what I did and this is wrong.’”

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Anthony Rota
Speaker of the House of Commons Anthony Rota leaves the Speaker’s Chair after announcing he will step down. Photo by Adrian Wyld /THE CANADIAN PRESS

He adds that all the political apologies he’s come across – a far more common event than in decades past, he notes – have tended toward being anodyne and non-specific. Drawing from personal experience, he says that when he would offer an apology to his wife, it would be specific.

“I would say: I was wrong. I’m sorry. And then I would talk about what I did. So it wasn’t just that I was in the wrong and that I was sorry for whatever hurt it caused. But I acknowledged that I had done something and made a commitment not to do that again. So there’s some learning.”

One thing they all seem to agree on is that Trudeau’s apology, even after Rota’s, was necessary.

“I think that just underscores the magnitude of that particular situation,” says McDougall. “The bigger the scandal, it’s going to require a bigger apology. So I think that fed into the amount of outrage that came out of that.”

Woolstencroft says the apology had to come from the top, and Trudeau was that. “Other than getting the King involved, but then King Charles was never going to come over here and apologize for that.”

“I think that as the head of the country has to do that,” adds Blais Comeau. “It’s about what it represents throughout the world, and to apologize within that … expectation that we have of our leaders.”

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Apologies notwithstanding, of course, Rota is out of a job as Speaker of the House.

“In some cases, sorry, is not enough,” says McDougall. “The hope is always that maybe an apology will be enough to symbolize your regret, and everybody will accept that and you can move forward. But I think there are some times when sorry is not going to cut it.

“And I think, in the case of Rota, it became pretty clear that although he may have offered a genuine apology for his misjudgment in that case, what had happened was simply too much for people to accept him continuing in that job.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives for a cabinet meeting on Sept. 26.

Blais Comeau agrees. “How do I follow through on my apology? In this case, a resignation to dissociate the role — his role — from the person, and to replace that person so that, probably, the values of Canadians can be upheld. Of what it means to be Canada on the world stage.”

Even that may not be the last word on the matter, however. Still unknown are the lasting effects on the apologizers, their governments and their parties.

“When we apologize, it’s not always negative,” notes Blais Comeau. “Because in some relationship, as human beings we can admire — I know I have admired — the courage of someone caring enough about our relationship to apologize. Because some people are not able to apologize. So that element of sincerity, if it’s truthful, can help the relationship.”

McDougall isn’t so certain. “I think we’re a little too early to tell,” he says. “Sometimes an apology is all you can offer. But I think that’s still getting a fair amount of attention. So we’ll have to see where we are in the weeks ahead on that.”

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