Apologizing? Or Saying Sorry!

It seems Canadian political leaders, be they provincial or federal, are forever offering formal apologies to groups of people disadvantaged or harmed by actions—or inaction—of predecessor governments.

Many of the transgressions go back a long way:  the forced resettlement of Indigenous children in residential schools, where almost 5000 children are known to have died; the imposition of a head tax on Chinese immigrants prior to 1923; the turning away of a refugee-ship carrying Jews fleeing Nazi Germany in 1939; the internment of Japanese-Canadians during World War II; the wilful neglect of Metis veterans following that war.

Why, some wonder, do today’s leaders feel the need to apologize for yesterday’s mistakes?  Large numbers of our fellow-citizens believe they should not.  They appear to agree with the words of a former prime minister, P. E. Trudeau:  I do not think it is the purpose of a government to right the past.  It is our purpose to be just in our time.

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Among the reasons for such thinking is that proffered apologies come far too late for those who were actually wronged; it is their descendants, not they, who benefit, perhaps financially.  From a legal standpoint, formal apologies from a government can be interpreted as admissions of guilt, opening up the possibility of costly liability and reparations, the price of which would be borne by today’s taxpayers.

In fact, when the Queen issued a formal apology to descendants of the Acadians who were expelled from the Maritimes, it ended with these words:  Our present proclamation does not, under any circumstances, constitute a recognition of legal or financial responsibility by the Crown.

Another reason certain people feel formal apologies should not be offered is that they are nothing more than a government’s attempt to absolve itself; in the words of one descendant of a Jewish family turned away in 1939, an apology is nothing but a shallow, empty, meaningless act [that] will not bring back my relatives, or offer me any solace.  Instead, it will whitewash a government that did nothing to help…

During the final years of my working career, I ran up against this sort of dilemma.  A man in his mid-thirties had come to a meeting of the school board where I served as chief executive officer, and in front of the assembled board in a public meeting, he disclosed that he’d been sexually assaulted as a boy of eleven by one of the board’s employees—the principal of his school.

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He further stated that, when his mother lodged a complaint with senior staff at the time, she and he were subjected to an interrogation by the then-CEO and the board’s legal counsel.  They were alone in that meeting.  Nothing was ever reported to the police, the principal vehemently denied the assertions, and the boy was transferred to another school.

Now, in full public view, with the local press in attendance, the man had come to demand an acknowledgement from the board of the assault and ongoing trauma he had experienced.

When he sat down, the entire room had been shocked into silence.

I was tasked by the board to meet with him and his mother, now in her sixties, which I arranged to do the following afternoon.  In our conversation, lasting more than two hours, I learned more details of what the man claimed to have suffered, and what the effects had been on him and his family.  I promised them I would investigate further and meet with them again.

In that investigation, I discovered a number of things.  From my predecessor of twenty-five years ago, I heard that the boy, considered at the time to be something of a troublemaker, had not been believed.  He told me the board’s lawyer back then had advised him to keep the matter private, and to caution the boy and his mother that going to the police might cause them a good deal of grief and harmful notoriety.  Further, they were told that, to relieve the boy of any further anxiety, he would be transferred out of the school he had attended since kindergarten.  At the end of our conversation, the former CEO conceded, somewhat ruefully, that he had not handled the matter as well as he might have.

I agreed.

From other sources, I learned that the principal who had been accused was, a few years later, accused by three other pupils of sexual assault.  On that occasion, he was charged, convicted, and imprisoned for his crimes.  At the time of my investigation, he had completed his sentence, been released, and was living in another district.  His teaching certificate had been revoked.

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None of that information had been conveyed to the boy and his mother, however, because, by the time those events transpired, they had left the community.

From the board’s current legal counsel, I learned that, should the man I was now dealing with decide to sue the board, the courts might very well decide in his favour—the reasoning being that the board could be deemed to have an ‘institutional responsibility’ for the actions of any predecessor board back to the time of its founding.

Not only that, but the current board might also be held accountable by the courts for actions taken by senior staff at the time who were acting as agents of the predecessor board.  In that case, the board could be responsible for the costs of defending those individuals if they were also named in litigation, and for any financial judgements against them.

I took this information back to the board for discussion in private session.  The individual trustees, five men and seven women, were profoundly moved to learn more about what had happened.  Every one of them expressed their sorrow and outrage over what the man had gone through as a boy of eleven.  A few of them had been students in the district at the same time as that boy, and although they did not know him, they strongly identified with his plight.

Nevertheless, the trustees were reluctant to authorize a formal apology on behalf of the board because the tragedy had occurred so long ago, under someone else’s watch.  And they feared such an apology could eventually cost the current board a good deal of money—money it did not have without reallocating it from needed programmes and services for our current students.

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Why should today’s children, they argued, be the ones to pay for the negligence and malpractice of a previous administration?  Where was the fairness in that?  Nevertheless, they agreed that, if such a financial penalty were to be imposed, the board would find a way to pay it.  Their intent was not to avoid acknowledging the harm done to an innocent child, but to avoid litigation.

What to do?

Eventually, they decided that, in my second meeting with the man and his mother, I would convey the board’s deep regret and sadness for what they had suffered—but in such a way as to avoid assuming responsibility.  They believed saying sorry was the appropriate thing to do—while, at the same time, hoping it was all they would have to do.

And so it was.  I met again with the man and his mother, told them what I had learned in my further investigation, conveyed the sincere horror and regret felt by the trustees when they heard the same details, and expressed how sorry they were about what he and his family had experienced.  I gave them a letter to that effect, signed by me and the chair of the board, and offered to make it public if the man so desired.

He did, and it appeared in the body of a report in the local media that same week.

As they listened to me in that meeting, and as they read the letter, I could see a visible weight lift from their shoulders.  Through all those years they had not been believed, and now the truth was finally acknowledged.  The man’s mother wept softly.

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They had no interest, it turned out, in pursuing criminal charges against the former principal over his unpunished crime, for that would open up the whole traumatic experience again, something they both wanted to avoid.  Neither were they interested in litigation against the board.

“All we ever wanted,” the man’s mother said through tears, “was for someone to believe us.  All we ever wanted was for someone to say sorry.”

So now, when I read about the formal apologies being given out by our various government leaders to descendants of groups who have been historically wronged, I think back to that experience.  And I wonder just how worthwhile and sincere such apologies are, especially when they expressly deny financial compensation for those wrongs—or if they do not result in significantly-changed behaviors.

Do the groups receiving those formal apologies really believe them?

My experience taught me that saying a heartfelt sorry is better than formally apologizing.

I thought so then, and I think so now.

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The Disappointment in Her Eyes

The tortured republic to the south of us is currently in the throes of an ugly struggle to confirm the next appointee to the Supreme Court of the United States.  In the bitterly-partisan bog in which the country finds itself mired, the approval or denial of the conservative candidate nominated by the incumbent president has become a political war unto the death.

As part of the effort to block his appointment, earnest liberal voices have claimed that the man, while drunk to the point of blacking out, sexually assaulted women during his high school and university years.  As of this writing, three women have come forth to tell their stories.

The nominee and his supporters have vehemently and emotionally denied all charges.

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The great unwashed masses—at least, those of them who care a whit—have no way of knowing what really happened those many years ago, so they make common side with whichever political party they already favour.

And the quest for truth takes a back seat.

The accusations could be investigated, of course, thoroughly and without bias, in order to bring more clarity.  Both the man and his accusers could then speak to the facts and evidence such an investigation might unearth.  But, anything other than a cursory look would take time, which would delay the appointment until, perhaps, after the impending mid-term election, when the opposing political party might seize control of the confirmation process.  Politically speaking, it is in the interests of the current majority party in the US Senate to move forward with all due haste, to swing the balance of the nine-member court to the conservative side while still they can.

So, the search for justice is set aside.

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I, as you might imagine, have no idea where the truth lies in the matter.  The women, to me, sound credible; the man comes across as defensive and dismissive of their claims.  But, that is only my opinion, and differing opinions are in vast supply.

Sadly, facts and evidence are, so far, virtually non-existent.

There seem to be two fulcrums around which the question might be decided.  The first is an examination of the man’s judicial record over the past thirty years—the one preferred by his backers, who believe the record to be impeccable.

The second is an exposé of the moral character of a man who might have committed such vile acts, even as a youth—the favoured option of his opponents, who believe he is deeply flawed.

Is the one more important than the other in making such a crucial decision?  Given the majority of his supporters in the Senate, it is the first, not the second, that is likely to win the day.

More than sixty years ago, as a boy of eleven, I and my classmates took to chasing the girls in our neighbourhood.  When we caught them, we held them until we could force a kiss upon them.  They struggled and squealed, naturally enough, but we thought they probably enjoyed the sport as much as we did.  We didn’t ask them, of course; we simply made that assumption.

A boy and a girl playing chase.

Looking back, I think I knew it was wrong at the time, but I set that aside because it was fun.  It never occurred to me that pursuing, forcibly restraining, and imposing unwanted attentions of that sort upon someone could be defined as sexual assault—not at my age, and not in the mid-1950’s.  We ragamuffin boys would have had no idea of what that term even meant; none of us was yet embarked upon puberty with all the changes it would bring.

I do remember my mother’s reaction, however, after receiving a phone call from the mother of one of the girls.  Corporal punishment (administered sparingly and in measured doses when necessary) was a part of her parenting repertoire, and she left no doubt in my mind (and on my buttocks) as to how she felt about my behaviour.  More than the pain from the narrow leather strop, though, I remember the anger in her voice.

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And I have never forgotten the disappointment in her eyes.

Why is this relevant to the US Supreme Court nomination, you might well ask; why do I even bring up such long-ago events?  Well, perhaps they aren’t particularly germane to the deliberations of the tall foreheads who will make their decision very soon, for better or worse.

But, I wonder what trouble I might have got into in high school and university if I had not been brought up short by a caring parent at the first sign of potentially-abusive behaviour—even if no harm was ever intended.  It is the effect upon the victim, after all, that matters most in such circumstances, not the intention of the perpetrator.

And I wonder if the nominee for this lifetime position on the US Supreme Court would ever have engaged in the sort of behaviour that might subsequently lead to accusations of sexual misconduct if he had learned those lessons at an earlier age.  Did his parents turn a blind eye to his sense of entitlement, I wonder?

As a society, we need to do more to ensure that young boys learn that respectful behaviour towards everyone, regardless of gender, race, religion, or sexual orientation, is what is expected of them.

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It’s time.

Addressing Sexual Misconduct

Over the past several months, it appears the floodgates have opened on revelations of sexual misconduct, some reaching into the highest corridors of power.

But these are revelations only.  The actual offenses have been going on, largely unreported, for longer than any of us would care to admit.  And that makes it all the more important to take action whenever such allegations surface.

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Some twenty years ago, during the last decade of my working career, I held three senior positions:  superintendent of personnel in a large school board, and then chief executive in two different school jurisdictions.  During that time, I had to deal with a dozen cases of reported sexual misconduct by employees.

The range of offenses included sexual harassment, sexual interference, sexual assault, solicitation of sexual favours, and the exploitation of students in the making and distribution of child pornography.

All the perpetrators were men, either teachers or business/operations employees.  Their victims included adults and children of both genders.  In all but two cases, those children were under the age of seventeen.

Of course, that number of offenders constituted but a tiny fraction of the total of dedicated and professional staff we employed.  But any number is too many.

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Four of the situations resulted in criminal charges being laid against the wrongdoers by police, and all went to trial.  The remaining situations were dealt with internally, involving an array of sanctions ranging from formal reprimand to outright dismissal.  In two cases, after investigation by police and child welfare authorities, the accusers subsequently retracted their allegations and the accused parties were absolved—although with some collateral damage to their public reputation.

In all three jurisdictions we had clear policies in place to affirm the right of every student and every employee to a safe learning and work environment.  Those policies included a reporting mechanism available to any persons who felt they were victimized, or on whose behalf a report was made by a concerned third party.  They also spelt out procedures by which designated managers would shepherd each case to its conclusion.  In every case but two, proper procedures were followed.

Both those situations involved mistakes by two school principals (both of whom were acting in what they believed to be the best interests of their students, who were minors), who decided to investigate the reports of sexual misconduct themselves.  The policy clearly stated—in accordance with provincial law—that, in such situations, it is the duty of the responsible official to contact the police or child welfare authorities, who will handle the investigation.  The principals, whose performance records to that point were unsullied, erred badly.  They were subsequently charged, found guilty, and fined.  Duly reprimanded, they were eventually reinstated to their positions, presumably much the wiser.

One of the perpetrators in those two cases, a teacher, was subsequently cleared of wrongdoing.  The other, a custodian, was eventually charged by police and found guilty at trial.

The sexual harassment situations were investigated internally by my staff, and all parties were given the right to state their cases—although not face-to-face, unless the victims so chose.  In every case, the accused parties admitted to their actions, professed not to realize they had caused offense, expressed remorse, apologized, and vowed not to re-offend.  I issued formal, written reprimands to them and, following a suspension, they were also reinstated.  To my knowledge, there was no repeat of their behaviours.

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In three of the criminal cases, one perpetrator pled guilty, two (a teacher and the aforementioned custodian) were found guilty at trial, and jail sentences were imposed on all of them.  In each case, the school board terminated their employment and I reported the two teachers’ names to the ministry of education, which revoked their teaching certificates.

The fourth criminal case was dismissed by the judge at trial, where he deemed the Crown had failed to prove its case under the law.  That teacher, however, was dismissed by the school board even before the trial, because we had sufficient evidence to determine that he had behaved unprofessionally, without regard for the welfare of the seventeen-year-old student with whom he had engaged in sexual relations.  Whether or not the criminal justice system regarded him as a predator who should not be near vulnerable young people, the school board certainly did.

I subsequently reported that case to the provincial college of teachers (which, by then, had taken over the professional disciplinary role from the ministry).  The college did not revoke the teacher’s certificate—perhaps because he had been found not guilty of a criminal offense.  Those are two decisions I disagree with to this day.

In the two cases where accusers recanted—after sensitive counseling sessions with child welfare authorities—the accused teachers were returned to duty after having been assigned to a central-office work-site during the investigations.  The publicity surrounding their cases, however, had the unfortunate result of leaving them unfairly tarred by the brush of public opinion.

In the wake of the recent spurt of allegations of sexual misconduct against prominent men—and based upon these experiences of mine—it strikes me that we must, indeed, pay attention to every accuser’s claims.  Yes, some may be spurious, some even outright false, but there is no question that such abuses do exist in our schools and workplaces.

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It seems to me, as well, that there is a difference between the exposure of such misbehaviours, with a concomitant imposition of suitable, punitive measures (call that the ethical bar, to protect the most vulnerable among us), and the higher standard required for criminal prosecution (call that the legal bar of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt).  Everyone is entitled to his or her day in court if charges are laid.  But sadly, some predators are never charged.

Even more importantly, everyone is entitled to personal safety in their schools and workplaces.  People in authority must listen and give a voice to those who feel abused and disempowered.  Under my watch, some perpetrators, even if not guilty of offenses under ‘black letter’ law, were indeed guilty of sexual misconduct.  And so, the employer had to act, even if the courts did not.

I’m not sure we did everything right in the situations I encountered those many years back.  Despite our best intentions, people got hurt.  But the one thing we did not do is ignore the pleas for help.

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Nor should any of us now at this watershed moment in time.