Apology as Public Ritual: Why It’s Still Important

  1. The Evolution of Apology

“Confession is good for the soul.”

Though we in the 21st century West are living in a post-religious age, the role of ritual is no less important to human nature than it ever was. This is why, even as people redefine cultural institutions like marriage, the ritual element remains in some form. The difference is that while in the past we were happy to let the church design our rituals, with marriage, custom-designed vows and ceremonies are now considered acceptable.

And what is an apology if not a ritual act? It can be the first signal that the person apologizing has acknowledged their wrong and is prepared to make restitution. In a capitalist society that too often means financial reparations, but it doesn’t have to for the ritual to have lasting value and meaning. It’s a foundational principle for restorative justice, where instead of punishment or vengeance for crimes committed against them, wronged families seek an agreed-upon set of actions demonstrating remorse and restitution.

Gibbs Home Sherbrooke

Church of England Gibbs House hostel, Sherbrooke, Québec. Former Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe is the grandson of a British Home Child. Boys and girls were emigrated from Britain in groups of up to 200.

Sociologists have studied the role of apologies in personal and societal relations extensively. In A Theory of Apologies, Benjamin Ho of the Stanford Graduate School of Business notes that, “Beyond the use of apologies in daily interpersonal interactions, apologies appear in international design, political reputations, legal litigation, international relations, corporate governance, and beyond.”[1] Ho cites sociologist Nicholas Tavuchis, who sees apology “as a kind of social exchange, a device that somehow restores social order paradoxically without altering the thing which is being apologized for.”[2]

This differs from the Greek root word ‘apologia,’ a “justification, explanation or excuse of an incident or course of action,” or “a defense of a person or vindication of an institution,” such as in Elizabethan poet Philip Sidney’s An Apology for Poetry (published 1595).[3] In an interesting example of social evolution, in 1590, a parallel meaning had emerged for apology, meaning a “frank expression of regret.”[4] By 1597 the verb form ‘apologize’ had come into use, while retaining its original connotation of ‘making a defense or excuse.’[5]

Barnardo's trunk books Ivy 1 low res

These were two of the books included in the child migrant’s steamer trunk, sometimes along with Sankey’s Hymn Book and ‘The Traveller’s Guide from Life to Death.’ Courtesy Ivy Sucee collection.

Elazar Barkan and Alexander Karn, in their book Taking Wrongs Seriously: Apologies and Reconciliation, see state apologies as a logical extension of social evolution: “Despite new tensions and escalating hostilities associated with what some view as the new world disorder, apology remains a powerful trend in global politics. Even as cycles of violence propagate in some spots, in others we see rival groups willing to put their troubled histories in the service of justice and peace.”[6] While the authors admit that, “apologies pry open the chapters of history which some prefer to remain closed… In the best cases, the negotiation of apology works to promote dialogue, tolerance, and cooperation between groups… Although they obviously do not erase or undo what has already happened, apologies can amend the past so that it resonates differently in the present for those who feel aggrieved by it or responsible for it.”[7]

If it was as simple as just saying sorry and letting it go at that, there would be nothing more to say. But an apology and its accompanying ritual is proportional to the gravity of the act being apologized for. There’s a huge difference between a mumbled sorry for forgetting to take the turkey out of the oven and burning it and apologizing for imprisoning an entire ethnic group during wartime based merely on guilt by association. Tavuchis calls this kind of formal state apology a “secular remedial ritual.”[8]

Hazelbrae Home low res

Barnardo’s Hazelbrae receiving home for girls, Peterborough, Ontario. Girls typically only stayed a few days here before being sent to work on farms in the region. Courtesy Peterborough Museum & Archives.

But as clinical psychologist Dr. Colm O’Connor points out, state rituals have their counterparts in the small rituals of home. “When one of your children hurts another child, be it a sibling or friend, you will typically ask your child to do two things—apologize for the hurt caused and make amends in some way. For small children it might be ‘Now give your little sister a hug and say you are sorry.’ For older children it may involve some repair of the damage like, ‘Now shake hands and give your brother half of your bar of chocolate,’ or ‘Don’t just say sorry, say it like you mean it. Now try again,’ says the mother. In all of these parenting situations the parent realizes that to repair hurt caused two things are required—a verbal apology and a ritual apology. The ritual apology is having the offender do something visible and concrete that enacts the apology. It is the hug, the shake hands, the walk to the neighbour’s front door, etc.”[9]

Owen portrait high res

Alfred Owen, chief of Barnardo’s Canadian operations in Toronto, was forced to resign in 1919 due to scandal over sexual impropriety with girls in his care.

This extends to adulthood, when for example an alcoholic finally realizes he is wronging his family by indulging his addiction. As Dr. O’Connor writes: “In the twelve-step program of AA there is a crucial step to recovery where the alcoholic has to ‘make amends for past wrongs.’ It is a powerful step because not only must the alcoholic apologize for his past wrongs, he/she must make amends for them. In other words, a verbal apology is never sufficient. What is required is some form of repair, reparation, or atonement.”[10]

By extension of this logic, a similar process of ‘ritual apology’ applies to the state. In 2009 the Irish Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse presided over by Judge Sean Ryan delivered its final report. It details the results of the Commission’s forensic investigation into the 170,000 children who were incarcerated in the paupers’ workhouse system operated by the Catholic Church during the 20th century.[11] O’Connor concludes: “The Catholic Church is steeped in a tradition of symbolism and ritual. It knows, as it has for many centuries, that humankind responds and communicates more through symbol and ritual than through language. … it is my view that what is required of the religious now is to ritualize their apology in a way that is visible, enacted, and symbolized. A ritualized apology carries far greater power than a verbal one.”[12] The point is doubly underscored by the recent discovery of 800 child and infant remains at the former Catholic orphanage Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home operated by nuns in Tuam, County Galway.[13]

  1. Canada’s British Home Children: Making Good on Apology

The apology motion brought forward on February 16 by Bloc Québécois MP Luc Thériault in the Canadian House of Commons has made a great start at righting another of history’s wrongs. However well-intentioned they may have been, the philanthropists who emigrated up to 150,000 poor children to the British colonies created a legacy not just of opportunity for a new beginning, but of neglect, trauma and even abuse that resonates down the generations. As Dr. O’Connor’s comments suggest, however, an apology delivered in the House of Commons without its public ritual component remains incomplete. The story was only picked up by one mainstream news outlet, the Montréal Gazette. If you blinked you missed it, unless you’re a politician or an avid follower of parliamentary business.

The House of Commons apology is just the latest event in an initiative that has a long history in this country, if you include statements made by former British Home Children themselves. (One of the best sources is Phyllis Harrison’s 1978 book The Home Children, recorded in their own words.) Certainly not all of them are in favour of an apology. Whether or not they are in favour seems to depend on how they were treated as children. But that shouldn’t negate the experiences of all the others who were forced to sleep in freezing attics or barns, not given adequate medical care or schooling, socially stigmatized, verbally abused, physically or sexually molested, and even killed.

Barnardo's Peter St. home Toronto

Barnardo’s Peter Street receiving home for boys in Toronto with boys’ band. Owen believed to be back row, far left. All was not quite as it seemed from this photo.

Lori Oschefski, who formed the British Home Children Advocacy and Research Association, has been circulating apology petitions since 2012. Working with her MP Judy Sgro (Liberal, Humber River-Black Creek), this petition was first presented in Parliament in February, March, and October 2013. Sgro presented Oschefski’s second apology petition on May 12, 2014 and again on June 2, 2015. The Private Member’s motion I co-drafted with former MP Alex Atamanenko (NDP, BC Southern Interior) was presented in the House February 19, 2015. Sandra Joyce and Karen Mahoney of British Home Child Group International collected thousands of signatures for their 2015 petition.  Sgro presented another petition with 1,800 signatures from Oschefski in March and June 2015. [14] When Richard Cannings was elected to the newly redrawn riding formerly represented by Atamanenko, one of his first acts in Parliament was to present our motion again. With the support of former Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe, success was finally achieved with Thériault’s motion this February.[15]

In fact the call for a federal government apology was raised as early as 2009, during the Parliamentary debates regarding the proclamation of 2010 as the ‘Year of the British Home Child’ in Canada. While all parties in the House had no problem agreeing to that proposal, NDP MPs Olivia Chow and Jim Malloway pressed the Harper government for something more. “As I said in my letter to the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism two weeks ago,” said Chow, “the 100,000 British home children and their descendants need a formal apology from Parliament. More needs to be done. …We thank all of the British home children for their contribution. They helped build our country. They helped define Canada. …We apologize for the treatment they received.” Malloway, MP for Elmwood–Transcona, Manitoba, added: “Given that this motion appears to have the full support of all 308 members of Parliament, it is just a logical extension from there that an apology should be in order.”[16]

Duceppe, then leader of the Bloc, made an eloquent statement that deserves to be read in its entirety. He made it clear that he too was in favour of an official apology: “The shame here is in the wrongdoing, not in the apology. What is shameful is the fact that we tolerated this situation for so long, for nearly a century, that we tacitly accepted this insidious form of slavery. …Now it is time to face the facts. The voice of history is loud and clear, and we must respond. We must stand up and apologize to the victims for the tragedy they experienced.”[17]

What these Parliamentarians are saying, in not so many words, is that for any official apology to be truly meaningful, it must be accompanied by public ritual. The precedents are there: the ceremonies held in Canberra, Australia and London, England in 2009 and 2010. After all, confession is as good for the soul of a nation as it is for its individual citizens.


[1] Benjamin Ho, A Theory of Apologies, Introduction, draft paper, March 2005 revision, p. 2, accessed online at https://web.stanford.edu/group/peg/Papers%20for%20call/ho-apologies-mar2005-draft.pdf.

[2] Benjamin Ho, A Theory of Apologies, ibid., p. 10.

[3] Nicholas Tavuchis, Mea Culpa: A Sociology of Apology and Reconciliation, Stanford University Press, 1991, p. 16.

[4] ‘Apologia,’ Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apologia.

[5] Nicholas Tavuchis, Mea Culpa: A Sociology of Apology and Reconciliation, ibid., p. 16.

[6] Elazar Barkan and Alexander Karn, Taking Wrongs Seriously: Apologies and Reconciliation, Stanford University Press, 2006, p. 5.

[7] Elazar Barkan and Alexander Karn, Taking Wrongs Seriously: Apologies and Reconciliation, ibid., pp. 7, 8.

[8] Nicholas Tavuchis, Mea Culpa: A Sociology of Apology and Reconciliation, ibid., p. 13.

[9] Dr. Colm O’Connor, Ritual Apology, web archived paper, https://www.google.ca/#q=the+role+of+apology+in+public+ritual&* For Dr. O’Connor’s qualifications see http://www.drcolmoconnor.com.

[10] Dr. Colm O’Connor, Ritual Apology, web archived paper, ibid.

[11] Steve James, ‘Irish child abuse: The Ryan Report cover-up,’ World Socialist Website, May 26, 2009, https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2009/05/irel-m26.html; ‘Children exposed to ‘daily terror’ in institutions,’ The Irish Times, May 20, 2009, http://www.irishtimes.com/news/children-exposed-to-daily-terror-in-institutions-1.840805.

[12] Dr. Colm O’Connor, Ritual Apology, web archived paper, ibid.

[13] Jamie Grierson, ‘Mass grave of babies and children found at Tuam care home in Ireland,’ The Guardian, March 3, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/03/mass-grave-of-babies-and-children-found-at-tuam-orphanage-in-ireland.

[14] ‘Parliament BHC Apology Petitions – Their Progress,’ British Home Children Advocacy and Research Association (BHCARA) website, http://www.britishhomechildren.com/apology-petition—progress.

[15] For details see my previous article, “House of Commons passes apology motion for British Home Children,” chameleonfire1 blog, https://chameleonfire1.wordpress.com/2017/02/23/house-of-commons-passes-apology-motion-for-british-home-children/.

[16] House of Commons debates, December 7, 2009, Open Parliament, https://openparliament.ca/debates/2009/12/7/maurizio-bevilacqua-1/.

[17] House of Commons debates, December 7, 2009, Open Parliament, https://openparliament.ca/debates/2009/12/7/maurizio-bevilacqua-1/.

About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
This entry was posted in Activism, Barnardo's Homes, History, Home Children and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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