Stuart McLean has suggested that the proper descriptor for a group of Canadians is an “apology.” Stephen Colbert joked that “I’m sorry” means both hello and goodbye in Canadian. The old line is that a Canadian is someone who apologizes to someone who steps on his or her foot.
We’re mocked for it, and we even more mercilessly mock ourselves, but I do believe that being apologetic is quintessentially Canadian. It’s a key element of our national character. But for those who say it’s a sign of meekness or weakness, I’m sorry to tell you that you’re wrong.
Apologies aren’t necessarily meek or deferential: they are frequently ironic or sarcastic, passive-aggressive, or rank insincerity in the face of bloody-minded or tyrannical ignorance. A case in point: when Galileo recanted his theory of the movement of the heavenly bodies under threat of torture and death, he muttered “Eppur se muove” under his breath. “And yet it moves.” And though he lived the rest of his life under house arrest, he quietly continued his studies and disseminated his research anonymously.
About as Canadian as a seventeenth century Italian can be.
Apology isn’t surrender. The word derives from the Greek apologia, which means a strong defense against a charge or accusation. Considering that one of the most basic elements of Canadian identity is angst over what constitutes Canadian identity, especially in our efforts to distinguish ourselves from Americans, it makes sense that we derive strength and meaning from defending our senses of self against the barrages of the U.S. culture industry.
Apology does not indicate weakness. In its most significant instances, it is about having the strength of character to admit wrongdoing and error, owning one’s past, and possessing sincerity of purpose going forward. When I find fault with my country, it is most often when this last element is lacking.
Apology is humility. It is about always having in the front of one’s mind the knowledge that we may be wrong, or may be in the wrong; not necessarily conceding the point, but waiting, watching, and weighing so as to best understand the given situation, as opposed to arrogantly asserting what we’re determined is the truth.
Further to that, apologetics refers to a series of reasoned arguments: the understanding that the knowledge of how best to govern, improve, or simply live is never a given but the result of honest and open discourse in which disagreement should never obviate listening.
Apology is courtesy. It is politeness. It is the acknowledgement that we share space with other people, and that our right to swing our fist ends where another person’s nose begins. (Unless they’ve just cross-checked you. Then the gloves are on the ice).
This post started its life as a reflection on everything I believe we’ve lost under Stephen Harper’s government, and became an exercise in articulating my particular understanding of Canada in contradistinction to Harper’s, as we can understand it through his governance.
I think it’s safe to say that Stephen Harper is one of the most unapologetic prime ministers in this nation’s history. His administration has forced our government scientists to mutter eppur se muove under their breaths, because they have otherwise been effectively prevented from disseminating their research or speaking publicly. He has steamrolled the messy, angsty, self-deprecating diversity of Canadian identity with jingoistic nationalism, a celebration of militarism rather than peacekeeping and diplomacy, and the demonization of ethnic and religious minorities. He is congenitally incapable of admitting failure or wrongdoing, relying instead on the hope that people have short memories. He does not allow for alternative perspectives, even within his own party and caucus, denigrating and mocking anyone who calls for anything resembling nuance. He goes out of his way to shut down argument, either by having moronic mouthpieces like Paul Calandra repeat talking points until they’re non sequiturs, or by ramming massive omnibus bills through Parliament in unconscionably short periods of time.
And finally, he is a bully. Of all the pernicious ways he has made good on his promise that “You won’t recognized Canada when I’m done with it,” the fact that he is simply mean-spirited and nasty is perhaps the least of them. And yet to my mind it emblematizes the very spirit of his governance. He has used the PMO to attack and bludgeon whomever he sees as his enemies, political or otherwise, embracing the politics of cruelty as developed in the U.S. by Lee Atwater and refined by Karl Rove. Since taking office, Harper has made it clear through word and action that he prefers the American style of politics to ours, and gone out of his way to do so: from Rovian attacks and smears, to the transformation of the PMO from Westminster—“first among equals”—to the west wing. All the while systematically denuding everything Canada has symbolized on the world stage.
Of the myriad things that I, as a Canadian, feel compelled to apologize for, I won’t apologize for my Prime Minister. He doesn’t deserve the consideration.