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Denouncing past wrongs gives society a way forward Add to ...

Millions of dollars spent, years of work invested, countless pages of testimony and recommendations. All of it in a quest for truth, or for reconciliation, or to satisfy those who say "never again."

For the victims and their families, these moments of public reckoning can produce anything from catharsis to anger. Less obvious, though, is the effect they can have on the broader public, which can assimilate a collective failure while maintaining a sense that the moral or practical shortcomings it exposed belong to another time.

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The release of the Air India inquiry report Thursday will help solidify a public narrative around the deadliest terrorist attack perpetrated in Canada. As it was with Britain's Bloody Sunday report and apology on Tuesday, or the residential schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission event launched Wednesday, or the inquiry report into the death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski to be released Friday, this is a moment when the public will be forced to come to terms with its past.

Alice MacLachlan, a York University philosophy professor, says these concluding chapters share an important undercurrent: a recognition that the past must be dealt with. There's no statute of limitations on moral responsibility, and the traditional mechanisms of justice aren't able to deal with these ruptures satisfactorily.

"The wrongs of the past, whether it's Air India, or Bloody Sunday or the residential schools, can't always be measured out materially or legally. Part of dealing with the past means negotiating our moral and political relationships with each other, so we find ourselves taking up a language like apologize, forgive, reconcile, come together," Prof. MacLachlan said.

Whether the Air India inquiry will spark an official apology is not known, but there's no question the mechanism of an official apology has become a primary response in these circumstances. British Prime Minister David Cameron's apology for Bloody Sunday this week was praised for its speed and forthrightness. In Canada, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was preceded by an apology delivered in the House of Commons two years ago, but it followed an earlier, unsatisfactory apology delivered by former Indian Affairs minister Jane Stewart in 1998.

There has been an accelerating trend around the world in the last three decades in which dozens, if not hundreds, of official apologies have been issued by various heads of government or churches, Prof. MacLachlan said.

"An apology is still about maintaining control of a story," she said. It offers a sense of closure or finality, at least in theory. The response to apologies among victims is usually mixed, she said, but it's often much more positive with the public.

The non-victimized majority tend to oppose apologies before they occur, says Mike Ross, a University of Waterloo psychologist who studies apologies and injustice. Polls in the U.S. show opposition to a national apology for slavery, he said, and in Australia, polls showed opposition to an apology for the Stolen Generation of aboriginal children. Former Australian prime minister John Howard was vehemently opposed to what he called "black armband history." But when his successor, Kevin Rudd, issued a formal apology, support for the move boomed, Prof. Ross said.

"If you look, a few weeks after these apologies occur, public support just jumps right up," he said. "People seem to feel good about it and they're pleased with themselves when [the government]apologizes. I think we feel proud, for example, that Canada apologized for the Japanese internment."

One of the effects of a public apology, Prof. Ross said, is that it makes discussion of a difficult subject much easier. The narrative around the event is changed, he said.

"It becomes a focus in history texts because we can describe it in a more positive way … partly because it becomes more salient, but also because we don't have to be as embarrassed about it any more. We've created a new narrative of righting a wrong."

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