First, I would like to mark St. Patrick’s Day by apologizing to the Irish.
This is what we in the journalism biz call a “quick win” — a sure readership-getter.
What I’m apologizing for, I’m not exactly sure. Perhaps it’s this joke. Q: How do you tell the difference between an Irish wake and an Irish wedding? A: One less drunk.
For this joke, I apologize from the bottom of my heart, or at least the heart of my bottom. It was told to me by my friend Patricia, who is from Dublin, which means when she tells it, it’s hilarious, but when I do so it’s appallingly insensitive.
But wait! I have an Irish ancestor, one who in family legend dropped dead the moment the lookout yelled “land ho!” as the boat neared Canada (I’m not making this up). I take this as licence to tell all stories that begin with “So Paddy walks into a bar…”
I should also pause to apologize to all those non-Irish whose saint days pass unnoticed. St. George’s Day, celebrating the patron saint of England, is a stat holiday in Newfoundland, but utterly ignored elsewhere in Canada (George is kind of like Stompin’ Tom that way, big at home, unknown abroad).
Likewise, I wouldn’t have known it was St. David’s Day two weeks ago had my friend Taffy not brought me Welsh cakes. I apologize to Taffy and Wales without reservation. Also to my wife, who is just now learning that I ate her Welsh cakes.
Canadians are famously apologetic. We say sorry when returning defective merchandise to the store. We say sorry for Don Cherry. We say sorry for things that are not our fault, like the weather, or when someone steps on your foot or you accidentally sleep with a co-worker.
In their bestseller How To Be A Canadian, the Ferguson brothers have an entire chapter entitled 12 Ways to Say I’m Sorry — their key point being that none of the 12 involves actual regret.
For here’s the deal: While Canadians might be famously apologetic, what they are not is famously sincere. Saying sorry is often just a way of avoiding conflict or, in the case of politicians, doing damage control.
It doesn’t always work, though. Prince George didn’t exactly set up a Hedy Fry Fan Club after the federal Liberal said sorry for declaring “crosses are being burned on lawns as we speak” in that city in 2001. The appropriately named Rep. Anthony Weiner couldn’t recover from sexting a lewd photo of himself to a young woman in 2011. People would have taken Bill Clinton’s 1998 sorry-for-fibbing-about-Lewinsky apology more seriously were his pants not still around his ankles.
Mea culpas for historical wrongs against ethnic groups are particularly ripe for cynicism, always come with a lingering suspicion of political pandering. It was so in 1988 when Brian Mulroney apologized for the wartime internment of Japanese-Canadians. Ditto when Stephen Harper declared Canada to be officially sorry for the Komagata Maru, residential schools and the Chinese head tax. (The federal government paid $20,000 apiece to each of the surviving immigrants who paid the pre-1923 head tax; compare that to the $4-million diamond ring Kobe Bryant bought his wife when atoning for a sex scandal in 2003.)
Premier Christy Clark has said she wants to apologize for the head tax, too, but is reluctant to do so right now in light of the current fuss over a plan in which apologies to ethnic groups were touted as an easy way to win her party votes. Any official apology now would be tainted by a lingering doubt: Is it true love, or are the Liberals just trying to get us in the sack?
Some people would be happy to see no more state apologies at all. Where to draw the line? How can Ottawa apologize for, say, turning away the Punjabis on the Komagata Maru in 1914 but not the German Jews aboard the ocean liner St. Louis in 1939?
But that attitude discounts how deeply meaningful official expressions of regret can be to those who are aggrieved. Some wounds are no joke, don’t stop hurting.
When should an apology be given? That’s easy: When it’s sincere.
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