The discovery of the buried remains of 215 children on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School announced on 20 May 2021 and now 751 unmarked graves on the grounds of the Marieval Indian Residential School on the lands of the Cowessess First Nations, have unleashed an avalanche of calls for Canada to come to a genuine reckoning with our grievous history in relation to the indigenous people of this land.

Since May, there has been much talk of the need for an apology from those who administered the schools which operated in Canada between the 1870s and the 1990s for their, often violent and destructive, behaviour towards the 150,000 indigenous children entrusted to their care.

Some Canadian churches have sought to offer a genuine apology. Other churches have claimed that an apology is unnecessary because one has already been given. 

So, what is the true sound of “I am sorry”? What does genuine apology look like?

If I seek to make a genuine apology:

1. I commit to being self-aware and brutally honest with myself and with you.

Self-awareness and honesty are the only ground in which a real apology can take root and grow. There can be no apology if I do not begin with truth-telling.

I can only offer a real apology after I have been willing to take a cold hard look in the mirror. How did I become a person who could cause such harm?

I need to see myself as I am. I need to dig down deep inside and see the unhealed wounds of my life that lie at the root of my harmful behaviour (nb: I do this, not to excuse my behaviour [see #2 below], but simply to see the truth about myself and to face the lies that made me a person who hurts others).

The evidence that I have done this hard and painful work of self-awareness will be seen in the degree to which I am able to fulfill the remaining five characteristics of a genuine apology.

2. I accept responsibility for my actions.

I will not shirk my responsibility by engaging in explaining, self-justification, or defensiveness. A genuine apology requires an unconditional acknowledgement of my guilt. It is not a platform from which to launch an appeal for understanding of my harmful behaviour.

A real “I am sorry…” is never followed with, “… but you have to understand,” or “…but I couldn’t help myself,” or “… but if you knew what I have suffered,” or “… but the times were different then.”     

As soon as I shift to any form of explanation, I immediately begin to excuse the wrong I have done. I undermine my apology in an attempt to minimize my responsibility.

I need to apologize because I know that my behaviour, my words, or my actions were wrong. A genuine apology says simply, “I know I was wrong and I make no excuse for the wrong I have done.”

3. I acknowledge that the wrong I have done has caused harm.

I am willing to see the pain I have caused; I renounce any attempt to take away or diminish your pain. I may not understand the pain you feel, but I accept unequivocally that your account of the hurt you have experienced is real and valid. I do not try to minimize the harm that I have done.

The path through this pain is yours to take, not mine to impose. You alone have the road map for your healing and it may be vague even for you. I commit to being patient and giving you all the space you feel you need to find your way forward.

The journey to healing will happen in your time along the lines you feel work for you. My only role is to cooperate with your healing process in whatever way you believe might be helpful.


1-3 are only the beginning of a healing journey. The journey continues with at least three more steps which I will propose tomorrow.