The 2019 federal election has been premised thus far on two things: embarrassment and apologies.
The Liberals and Conservatives have unearthed embarrassing and often racist material produced by candidates on either side, attempting to derail the opposing campaigns with scandals. The response to each of these discoveries is marked by embarrassment and then some type of apology.
The back and forth has hit its pinnacle with the discovery of photos of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau in brownface and blackface.
While the Conservatives demand Trudeau’s resignation, and the Liberals accuse them of hypocrisy given Conservative tolerance of racist behaviour within their ranks, the rest of the public is left trying to sort through this entire mess.
Is it reasonable to believe that someone who has acted in a racist or bigoted manner is able to redeem his or herself? And if so, what exactly constitutes a meaningful apology?
It’s easy for politicians to stand in front of cameras and apologize, but are all apologies equal?
As a man of faith, I believe in values like redemption and forgiveness — a belief I am sure all Canadians share.
So how can we differentiate a meaningful apology based on a changed person from a disingenuous apology based on a present-day stake?
A meaningful apology is specific in naming the offence, accepts blame and accountability, names those affected by the offence and shows tangible action toward making amends.
As an Arab, I was absolutely horrified by the photo of Trudeau in brownface. It brought to mind childhood memories of when I was made to feel less than others simply because of my skin colour and ethnicity. The history of brownface and blackface is long and complex, but has always sought to alienate people of colour.
But Trudeau’s apology was largely contrite. He named the specific wrong and did not shy away from rightfully labelling it as racism. He did not shift the blame unto those who uncovered the photo, but instead took responsibility for his actions.
One failing in his apology was when he remarked that he has “been more enthusiastic about costumes than is... sometimes appropriate.” This sounds like minimizing the offence, which a genuine apology should never do.
More importantly, Trudeau has taken tangible actions to demonstrate the sincerity of his words. He has empowered people of colour in his government to higher levels than they have historically achieved, and has spoken consistently on behalf of minority rights. Demonstrating change is done largely through actions rather than words. And while many reasonable people might still find Trudeau’s apology lacking, the tangible actions lend sincerity toward his atonement.
Contrast his apology to when a video emerged of Justina McCaffrey, Conservative MP candidate for Kanata-Carleton, describing what seemed to be a close friendship and a desire to start a TV show with neo-Nazi sympathizer Faith Goldy.
McCaffrey’s apology was short and vague, and did not address why people will correctly have misgivings of a politician who befriended a prominent white supremacist. It did not name the offence, the effect or seek to make amends.
We can also consider the apology of Ghada Melek, a Conservative MP candidate for Mississauga-Streetsville who posted and retweeted a number of Islamophobic and homophobic statements in the past.
In Melek’s apology, she shifts blame by referencing her Egyptian heritage and calling her anti-Muslim posts “an emotional response” to her native country’s then-president Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, something that has no relevance or connection to her posts.
While the history of Coptic Christians and Muslims in Egypt is deeply complicated, Melek does not take personal responsibility for her actions in her apology. And while she vows to work with Muslims and move beyond her past statements, she has since rebuffed attempts by Muslim organizations to reach out to her.
Certainly, all of us have done and said things in the past we deeply regret and would hope others would look beyond them. For that, we should all be open to accepting others who want to move on from their past mistakes, but not without genuine contrition, accepting personal responsibility and making amends through tangible action.