In this analysis of two public apologies made by Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, J-Source Law Editor Thomas Rose suggests apology law may be trivializing the value of an apology in public discourse.   

By Thomas Rose, J-Source Law Editor

So, what do you think about Rob Ford’s apologies? Were they sincere? Did they display honest contrition? Are you convinced the mayor of Toronto is about to change his ways?

You know the apologies I mean. First there was the apology following the mayor’s admission that yes, indeed, he had smoked crack cocaine. Then came an apology for behaviour surreptitiously recorded and then broadcast after it was purchased by the Toronto Star. In that video, Ford is seen and heard lashing out at an unnamed person whom the mayor says he would like to “kill.”

Apologies, as most know, can be a powerful source of healing. Uttering those three little words, “I am sorry,” can melt even the hardest heart and pave the way for mending broken relationships. 

Are Ford’s apologies accomplishing these goals? 


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According to pundits and journalists, the answer apparently is a resounding no. Toronto’s four major newspapers, for example, have all called on the mayor to step down. Even the radio station Newstalk1010, which has provided the mayor with a bully pulpit to attack his critics, has, at least temporarily, cancelled Ford’s weekly show. 

Still, while the mayor’s apologies may not sit well with journalists and commentators, they do seem to be resonating with voters. As reported by cbc.ca, the mayor’s approval rating rose a whopping five per cent following news that the infamous “does not exist” video of Ford allegedly smoking crack cocaine does, in fact, exist. There’s no telling what results the latest “murder video” will produce, but at the moment it seems as though the mayor’s apologies are helping.

To help understand why that may be, it might be useful to explore the dynamics of the apology, especially as it is understood by politicians, spin doctors and the law.

Apology law

In Canada, at least eight provinces and one territory have enacted apology laws. Apology in law, however, unlike apology in private life, is less concerned with mending broken relationships than it is with protecting certain classes of people from criminal or civil action.

Prior to the introduction of apology law, doctors, business people, politicians and other professionals were often loath to make a public apology for fear such an act could be used against them in court.  

Apology law bars public apologies from being used as evidence of guilt in subsequent legal proceedings. As a result, the apology has now become an often indispensible tool in public relations, marketing and, of course, in politics. By shielding people from the legal consequences of their actions, the law has, in certain respects, gutted the central purpose of the apology, which is to make people assume responsibility for the harm they have caused others.

Ford’s apologies likely were urged upon him by his lawyers. Whether they believe this will provide their client with needed protection in any future legal action is no doubt a closely guarded bit of information. Aside from any legal advantage the mayor’s apology may produce, however, there is still the matter of his standing among voters.  

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Remorse, restitution, rehabilitation

Nicholas Tavuchis, in his groundbreaking book, Mea Culpa, described an apology as an interaction between offender and offended, in this case, between Ford and the citizens of Toronto. For an apology to be considered effective, Tavuchis felt at least three elements must be present: remorse, restitution and rehabilitation.

Remorse generally means an expression of deep regret or even guilt. Was remorse present in Ford’s apologies?

Regarding the Toronto Star’s publication of the “murder video,” Ford did say he was sorry, but only at the very end of his public statement in what could easily be interpreted as an afterthought. Even then the words were almost lost in the noise of whirring cameras and reporters shouting out questions.  

And what of the apology issued when the mayor admitted to smoking crack cocaine? A perusal of the transcript now available online indicates that the mayor did acknowledge three times that he “made mistakes.” And he did state three times, “All I can do now is apologize.”  In one instance, he even stipulated that while he “can’t change the past” he can “apologize to my family, my friends, my colleagues and the people of this great city.” 

Even a generous interpretation of the mayor’s words suggests a distinct lack of genuine remorse or deep regret. His apology was always couched in the conditional: I can apologize. But he never actually apologized. Nor did he identify exactly what acts he might be sorry for. In other words, there was no acknowledgement of guilt or a willingness to take responsibility for his actions.

What about restitution? 

The common understanding of restitution is that the offender takes steps to restore that which has been lost or stolen. In this case, what was lost or stolen was the trust voters placed in Ford when they elected him to office as well as the goodwill Torontonians have invested in the office of the mayor since the city was created nearly 140 years ago. In his apologies, however, the mayor has not admitted that anything has been lost or indicated how he might go about restoring that trust.

And that brings us to rehabilitation. 

The common understanding of rehabilitation is the idea that there exists a need to restore someone to health or normal life by training and therapy, usually after an illness or addiction. 

Few would dispute Ford suffers from substance abuse or addiction and that he could greatly benefit from some kind of therapy or counselling. And yet, in the mayor’s apologies there is no indication of a willingness to seek therapy or even recognition that there is a problem. Doug Ford, the mayor’s brother, is on record saying he thinks it might be best if his brother took some time off work. But so far it seems the most the mayor will admit to is being in an occasional “drunken stupor”. 

Sincerity

In addition to evidence of remorse, restitution and rehabilitation, for an apology to be considered good, there must be indisputable evidence of genuine sincerity. Claire Truesdale, a B.C. lawyer who has written on the nature of apology, suggests a sincere apology is one that is offered without defence, without justification, without excuse.

According to Ford, any offence he may or may not have committed, any trust he may or may not have broken, is the result of being in a “drunken stupor.” If there is blame, place it on alcohol. As the mayor said, “I don’t even remember.” 

Even a generous interpretation of the mayor’s recent apologies suggests he has yet to fully understand the offences he has committed or take full responsibility for the harm he has caused not only himself, but to the people of Toronto.