How Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's apology suggests potential for change

Canadian politics have proven in the last week that a picture truly is worth 1,000 words. But what does the prime minister have to do to make a meaningful apology that truly benefits those wronged?

Research shows 'I'm sorry' must be accompanied by action, professors write

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau reacts as he makes a statement in regards to photo coming to light of himself from 2001 wearing "brownface" during a scrum on his campaign plane on Sept. 18. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Canadian politics has proven in the last week that a picture truly is worth 1,000 words.

The images of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a self-described champion of diversity, equity and inclusion, in brownface at a costume party and blackface at a talent show caused the Liberal Party leader to drop everything and respond to behaviour many have described as racist and offensive.

Trudeau acknowledged his behaviour as racist during a Wednesday night press scrum held on his campaign plane.

"It was something that I didn't think was racist at the time, but now I recognize that it was something racist to do and I am deeply sorry," he said.

"I am an ally for these communities," he further stated.

"I have worked all my life to try and create opportunities for people, to fight against racism and intolerance, and I can just stand here and say I made a mistake when I was younger and I wish I hadn't."

His first apology included the use of "I" statements 130 times (i.e. "I'm pissed off at myself"). These statements did not discuss those who are wronged or the injury caused by his actions.

In other words, his initial apology centred solely on his role, and his record of other "good" behaviour.

How should Canadians assess this apology?

Research shows there are a number of key components that contribute to a meaningful apology that truly benefits those wronged.

Perhaps the most significant of these findings it that a meaningful apology is not a one-time event, but rather a series of actions and behaviours to demonstrate humility and to correct the wrong or injury in question.

It must also include efforts to restore respect and dignity to those harmed in order to address feelings of disrespect and humiliation, argued Dr. Aaron Lazare, a former chancellor and chair of psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts who studied and wrote about apology and humiliation in medical encounters.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is shown in this 2001 photo published in the yearbook of West Point Grey Academy, a private school where Trudeau was teaching at the time. (

What Trudeau's initial apology did well is to validate that an offence did occur. His initial reaction acknowledged his fault and further indicated to Canadians that he is "taking responsibility" for his actions.

But what does the term "taking responsibility" actually mean in this situation? The research on apology shows that taking responsibility means making a demonstrably deep, long-term commitment to correct the offence, the prevention of future incidences and, in some cases, making reparations to address damages to others. 

We are currently researching the potential impacts of medical apologies — the statements of regret or commiseration that are an integral part of responding to medical error or mistreatment. 

In these situations, the initial statement of apology is best understood as the first of many steps in taking responsibility.

Being accountable also means following up via phone calls and in-person meetings with the patient and family, friends and possibly an advocate. It can also include attending a patient's funeral if the medical error resulted in death.

Most importantly, our research shows that patients who have been wronged most strongly prioritize clear and transparent learning from the error as important following a statement of apology. This kind of action is an important part of rebuilding trust and establishing what Lazare refers to as a "promise for the future" — a commitment to ongoing learning and to changing behaviour (individually, institutionally or both) to prevent the occurrence of similar wrongs.

Many of the patients we spoke with also wanted to be directly involved in developing these changes and preventative strategies. 

What, if anything, does this research tell us about how to assess Trudeau's apology?

If we take certain principles from the medical apology research and apply them to Trudeau, we can assume that many Canadians feel that his initial statements of regret are hollow if they are not followed with meaningful recognition of the realities of structural racism that Canadians encounter every day.

Recognition that racialized Canadians are the experts on issues of race and racism in our society will also be an important part of a meaningful response. Racialized Canadians must be given a prominent public voice on these complex issues and Trudeau can and should demonstrate humility and learning by publicly listening and making space for these important dialogues.

"North American society is quite focused on identifying people as 'racists' or 'not racists.'… And yet, we all live, breathe and swim in a soup of structural racism reinforcing racist beliefs, family doctor and activist Ritika Goel argued in an article in the Tyee.

As Goel suggests, assessing who is good or bad based on this dichotomous understanding does nothing to create change. Instead, it perpetuates our existing structure by focusing on individual wrong actions or bad behaviour. 

If Trudeau's statements of regret are to have meaning, he must create space for Canadians to speak openly and critically about racism.

There is an incredible opportunity to do so at this moment, and creating this space, whether through a royal commission, the establishment of a national task force or a series of public events/dialogues, followed by institutional and policy reform, would be a real indication that Trudeau is in fact sorry for his mistakes and willing to take responsibility, not just as an individual, but as the prime minister of Canada.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

Read more opinion pieces published by CBC Manitoba.

About the Author

Karine Levasseur is an associate professor in the department of political studies at the University of Manitoba. Fiona MacDonald is an associate professor in the department of political science at the University of the Fraser Valley.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.