The politics of saying sorry: Making good on intentions

In Aotearoa’s sister nation of Canada, there is a government appointed body called The Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It was set up in 2008 to document the experiences of children who lived in residential schools in Canada between 1883 and 1996. Its mandate was to fully report the truth of what happened to the 150,000 First Nations, Metis and Inuit children who attended these schools – to tell of the abuse inflicted upon many of them at the hands of the state and the church.

In 2008 the Canadian government publicly apologized for the abuse experienced in these schools. The final report released by the Commission in June 2016 contains the voices of many survivors, many of whom openly acknowledge the similar experience of their indigenous brothers and sisters in New Zealand, Australia, Ireland and other countries around the world. These points of connection are at once poignant and alarming, but important to embrace in Aotearoa New Zealand today as renewed calls for inquiries into historical state child abuse and demands for a state apology are again in the headlines.

Most stories about past abuse of children in state care surface in our world when the media tells us about them. We are dependent on our newsfeed to hear about what happened, for example, to young offenders in the Urewera boot camps in the 1990s, to the First Nations Canadian man brought to New Zealand as part of the Sixties Scoop who then suffered horrific abuse in New Zealand state care, and to the children who lived in an Irish Catholic home in the 1950s. This is a sample of what we heard about last week. Do a simple Google search and find dozens of stories like these from around the western world, sitting precisely, in a row, on a never-ending bottomless scroll.

Governments do apologise for historic wrongdoing – political apologies for past abuse are a thing. Numerous western countries have been archiving stories related to past abuse of children in state and church care via commissions and inquiries since the 1990s and have subsequently offered public apologies for atrocities uncovered. These countries include Australia, Canada, Ireland, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Norway, Iceland, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Austria and most recently Finland.  Political apologies are based on attention to human rights and children’s rights. They represent a change in how we view our history, from one that is glorified and in need of celebration, to one that is scarred and in need of healing. We are now called on to rethink history – to focus on the past as a place of change (Sköld and Swain, 2015).

Last week an open letter, led by the  Human Rights Commission and addressed to the New Zealand prime minister, asked for an independent inquiry into abuse of people held in state care – for a public apology and for redress. The Confidential Listening and Assistance Service was mandated in 2008 to listen to the stories of New Zealanders who were abused, neglected or had concerns about the way they were treated in state care before 1992. A recommendation in their 2015 final report was that the government provide “a public statement to the people of New Zealand about what happened to those who suffered abuse and neglect in state care and acknowledge the wrongs of the past.” This call for an inquiry and public apology was an echo of similar requests made over the years by many iwi, political and social service leaders. It continues to be made and has never happened.

Of the 1103 New Zealanders who received the listening service, a disproportionate number were Māori (411), and many of these were Māori men interviewed from within prison walls (131).  Those who participated in the service have in some cases received compensation from the government, and private apologies in letters from the Minister of Social Development. Good things did come from the service. The New Zealand government however, continues to refuse to make a public apology for what happened.

Why is it so hard for the Prime Minister to apologize? New Zealand criminologist Elizabeth Stanley researched 105 stories of victims of abuse in state care, this work culminating in her recently published book, The Road to Hell: state violence against Children in Post-war New Zealand. Her findings which were also disseminated academically prior to the book’s publication, were that survivors overwhelmingly wanted to “hear a public apology from the highest level of government” (Stanley, 2015, p. 1164). Stanley has no patience with excuses offered by the government, for their reluctance to publicly apologize, and provides a rebuttal for every argument offered by the state.

There’s an old Cree man in Canada named Augie Merasty who speaks eloquently with a lone voice from within all of this. He is one of many First Nations, Metis and Inuit people who have stepped forward in the last 10 years to speak about who they are and of their experiences as children. Augie was 86 years old, living on the streets of a northern city called Prince Albert in the province of Saskatchewan when he published a small book about his experience as a residential school student in northern Canada from 1935 to 1944.

Mr. Merasty’s chronicle is not a critical analysis of the truth and reconciliation process, or an historical account of the shocking statistics related to the First Nations people of Canada – their disproportionate representation in child welfare services and prisons, the 1180 unsolved murders of their women, the sickening Sixties Scoop. He simply, without complaining, tells his story, of forced removal from his parents, of abuse and neglect as a little child at school.

I don’t think Augie Merasty’s intention in writing his book was to change the world, or even to get readers to feel what he felt; the sense I got when reading his words was that he simply had a basic sense of justice and stories he wanted to keep on telling. He also, perhaps because of the dignity offered him by a public apology, had a new audience, a whole country that he had nothing to hide from anymore – including the power he felt in the strength of his resolve:

I would never let another human being abuse me again and I’ve been fighting everything since then, from bullies to racist bastards.

Truth commissions and inquiries will only ever be as good as the political will to follow through with recommendations made by those who courageously shared their experiences. Many people who reported to the listening service and who were participants in Elizabeth Stanley’s New Zealand study didn’t want anyone else to suffer as they did, and most wanted a public apology:

I don’t want pity…I would like an apology, I really would … It might sound silly but I want that acknowledgement that they did wrong and it wasn’t just all my fault like they sometimes lead you to believe…not just for me, but for all of my friends that are no longer here because of what happened to them…I want them to admit that they did wrong to people. I suppose a lot of people feel that way too, we want some acknowledgement that we’re not all crazy like they tried to make us think (Raewyn). (Stanley, 2015, p. 1161)

Without the kind of public acknowledgement asked for by this survivor, the state of Aotearoa New Zealand is denying its role in historic institutional abuse. And in doing this, it actively denies its responsibility for the racism, violence and harm we know children continue to be exposed to in state care. The social work profession must collectively respond to the structural power implicit in this stance and look for new ways to critically respond.


Merasty, J.A. (with David Carpenter) (2015). The education of Augie Merasty: A residential school memoir. Saskatchewan: University of Regina Press

Sköld, J., & Swain, S. (Eds.). (2015). Apologies and the Legacy of Abuse of Children in ‘Care’: International Perspectives. Hampshire, United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan.

Stanley, E. (2015). Responding to state institutional violence. British Journal of Criminology, 5, 1149–1167. doi:10.1093/bjc/azv034

Image Credit | Library and Archives Canada

4 thoughts on “The politics of saying sorry: Making good on intentions

  1. I’m one of many people who have signed the petition to support the HRC in calling to have the government set up an inquiry into the historical institutional abuse of those in care. Thanks Deb for outlining the global story about positive steps that have been taken to begin to address this past. Another reason for having a public inquiry is to guide current and future policy about the institutional and wider care of children so we have less chance of repeating the abuse.

  2. Re “I want that acknowledgement that they did wrong and it wasn’t just all my fault like they sometimes lead you to believe…not just for me, but for all of my friends that are no longer here because of what happened to them”
    Furthermore without this public apology people who have no experience of abuse, and even people who do will continue to deny people who have this experience the right to tell their story and most of all be believed. Too many people use the fact that the NZ government refuses to make a public apology to heap more abuse on people who dare to speak up.

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