Canadians are known for saying “I’m sorry” and they usually mean it, even if, or often when, they aren’t at fault.
It’s almost a reflex reaction.
But at one time, saying sorry could have been taken as an admission of liability, turning Canada’s favourite pastime into an obligation to pay damages to an injured party.
Not so any more, and not for quite some time, at least in British Columbia.
In 2006, the province passed the Apology Act. The Act has two substantive provisions. The first defines an apology generally as:
- an expression of sympathy or regret,
- a statement that one is sorry, or
- any other words or actions indicating contrition or commiseration.
This sounds exactly how Canadians use the word: to show compassion and sympathy, and not necessarily guilt.
The second provision of the Act is the key provision. It says that making an apology does not constitute an admission of fault or liability. Nor can it void a contract for insurance (some insurance policies expressly stated that they would become void if the insured apologized or otherwise assumed liability). Furthermore any evidence of an apology is not admissible in court as evidence of fault or liability.
Interestingly, the Act was passed to enable the provincial government to apologize to large groups of voters without giving rise to potential lawsuits and damage claims. It followed a special report prepared by the province’s Ombudsman entitled The Power of Apology: Removing the Legal Barriers.
In the report, Howard Kushner, Acting Ombudsman for the province, wrote:
“In more than six years as the Ombudsman … I have observed that a sincerely offered apology will often satisfy a person who has a complaint. In her 1995 Annual Report, former Ombudsman, Dulcie McCallum made a similar observation that “Fairness may mean having to say you’re sorry.” I have heard repeatedly from individuals who needed to hear a public agency apologize so that they could stop being angry about what happened, forgive and move toward healing. I have also heard a range of reasons from senior public service officials why an apology is not possible. Most frequently public service officials inform me that they have received legal advice not to apologize, out of concern that an apology will be considered an acknowledgement of liability in any ensuing court action.”
Since the Act was passed, the government has apologized to a number of groups, including the Chinese who were forced to pay a head tax to enter Canada in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and the Japanese who were interned in World War II.
But the Act, and the words of the Acting Ombudsman, also resonate in non-government situations because often all people want is an apology for a wrong they feel someone has done to them.
That includes employment cases.
For example, if a company wrongly alleges cause for termination and gets sued by the employee, an apology may open a door to severance negotiations that hard feelings may have slammed shut. The employee/employer relationship is often an emotional one, so anything that works to soften ruffled feathers can go a long way.
My colleague David Brown put it this way:
“In my experience, a heartfelt apology allows people to take down their guard a little bit and focus on resolution.”
So go ahead, act like a true Canadian and say “I’m sorry.”