It’s of­ten re­marked, “It’s not hard to say sorry” yet the long­stand­ing re­luc­tance of many gov­ern­ments of for­mer Bri­tish colonies to say sorry as na­tions for the dam­age done to their most vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple has long shown oth­er­wise. Such a fact needs be ac­knowl­edged along­side the re­al­ity that where prior gen­er­a­tions failed, more re­cent ones have in­deed made good and sin­cere in­roads in at­tempt­ing to right wrongs.

That’s why the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment’s re­cent reck­on­ing with the Win­drush Gen­er­a­tion scan­dal is be­ing ob­served closely, to not only see jus­tice sought for the Win­drush Gen­er­a­tion, but to see what na­tions who share a Bri­tish her­itage and his­tory of gov­ern­ment abuse have done to pur­sue rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.

So how does the treat­ment of the Win­drush apol­ogy and re­dress com­pare to sim­i­lar ex­am­ples seen in Aus­tralia and Canada? And what does it re­ally mean to say sorry to vic­tims of gov­ern­ment abuse? Let’s look now.


The Win­drush story has been cov­ered ex­ten­sively lo­cally. But if any­one some­how missed it (or a reader abroad is yet to hear about it) the scan­dal con­cerns the UK gov­ern­ment’s wrong­ful de­tain­ment, and un­law­ful de­nial of le­gal rights, and ul­ti­mately de­por­ta­tion, of in­di­vid­u­als (es­pe­cially from the Caribbean) prior to

1973, now known as the Win­drush Gen­er­a­tion.

Not only had many of those af­fected legally trav­elled from Caribbean na­tions to the UK to start a new life af­ter World War II, but many had in fact been born Bri­tish sub­jects.

An apol­ogy has now been is­sued, by then-UK in­te­rior min­is­ter Am­ber Rudd in April of this year, and while each apol­ogy is unique and must be treated as such, there is a dif­fer­ence in ap­proach to apolo­gies de­pend­ing on which for­mer Bri­tish na­tion it was made in. In turn, the ex­pec­ta­tion must al­ways be that an apol­ogy comes with a prom­ise of re­dress to right a wrong — and to be more than words alone, how­ever mean­ing­ful they may be.


On Fe­bru­ary 13, 2008 the prime min­is­ter of Aus­tralia, Kevin Rudd, made an of­fi­cial apol­ogy to the Stolen Gen­er­a­tion — Aus­tralian Abo­rig­i­nal and Tor­res Strait Is­lander chil­dren forcibly re­moved from their par­ents be­tween 1910 and 1970 by Aus­tralian fed­eral and state gov­ern­ments. This was one of the land­mark acts of his newly elected gov­ern­ment.

Rudd’s apol­ogy state­ment saw him say sorry six times. He in­di­cated af­ter that the apol­ogy wasn’t just over­due, but a mat­ter of ur­gency. In say­ing sorry soon af­ter tak­ing of­fice (be­ing of­fi­cially sworn in in De­cem­ber 2007) the Rudd gov­ern­ment looked to close one chap­ter of indige­nous re­la­tions sym­bol­i­cally, so it could have a ‘new start’ in its pol­icy-based pro­grammes.

One such pro­gramme is the Clos­ing the Gap (CTG) ini­tia­tive — aimed at re­duc­ing the gap be­tween qual­ity of life out­comes of indige­nous Aus­tralians and non-indige­nous Aus­tralians — de­vised by the the Coun­cil of Aus­tralian Gov­ern­ments (COAG). For the first time in seven years, as of 2018, COAG is on track to meet­ing three of the seven CTG tar­gets. Ar­guably not enough mean­ing­ful progress, but in­deed some, given the big goals of CTG.


2008 was also a notable year for rec­on­cil­i­a­tion in Canada. In June of that year, Prime Min­is­ter Stephen Harper made an of­fi­cial apol­ogy to stu­dents of In­dian res­i­den­tial schools, for the his­tor­i­cal prac­tice of nu­mer­ous abuses, in­clud­ing forcibly re­mov­ing In­dian chil­dren from their own fam­i­lies, and seek­ing to forcibly as­sim­i­late them into the ‘dom­i­nant’ Cana­dian cul­ture.

Canada’s ex­pe­ri­ence here is par­tic­u­larly sig­nif­i­cant, not only for cur­rent Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau’s re­jec­tion of a dom­i­nant Cana­dian cul­ture (fa­mously say­ing, ‘‘There is no core iden­tity, no main­stream in Canada”), but also the nu­mer­ous of­fi­cial apolo­gies he’s given as prime min­is­ter, hav­ing is­sued four since com­ing to of­fice in Novem­ber 2015.

Sup­port­ers claim this is a sign of a truly pro­gres­sive leader but crit­ics hold that the risk of nu­mer­ous apolo­gies so soon is they lose their sig­nif­i­cance, and do more harm than good be­cause a fair pe­riod of time for a na­tion’s proper recog­ni­tion of, and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with, his­tory is lost.


Cer­tainly, in nu­mer­ous na­tions the fail­ures of gov­ern­ment to prop­erly rec­on­cile with his­tory have been im­mense, and there re­mains much work to be done, in­clud­ing sober recog­ni­tion that the progress so far has sim­ply not been enough.

Yet to truly un­der­stand where progress can be made, the many shades of grey in iden­ti­fy­ing the right path for­ward also needs to be ac­knowl­edged. It means those seek­ing to truly see progress made must avoid the easy temp­ta­tion of de­featism, and need­less de­ri­sion of those try­ing to pur­sue sin­cere resti­tu­tion.

There can be no doubt these is­sues are not easy, es­pe­cially be­cause it can re­main a chal­lenge to find com­mon ground that’s agree­able to all par­ties when it comes to rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and resti­tu­tion. The old adage ‘hon­ourable peo­ple can dif­fer’ can ap­ply, as even all stake­hold­ers work­ing in good faith (whether vic­tims of wrongs done or of­fi­cials who now lead a gov­ern­ment that in­her­ited wrongs done) may find a shared vi­sion hard to iden­tify, and so progress stalls.

It’s also true that there are many peo­ple across all ar­eas of so­ci­ety (in­clud­ing, most com­mend­ably, those who’ve been vic­tims) that most of all just as­pire to work in good faith to bring about greater fair­ness and a fu­ture that sees all peo­ple of a na­tion progress.

Ul­ti­mately, rec­on­cil­i­a­tion re­quires all par­ties to progress, and that means also en­sur­ing all par­ties feel en­cour­aged by the po­ten­tial to progress. In the UK and else­where, that’s the chal­lenge ahead.


Words are good, and their im­por­tance in such matters as these shouldn’t be un­der­stated.

Even if resti­tu­tion and rem­edy is pur­sued for vic­tims of gov­ern­ment abuse, in the ab­sence of any ex­pres­sion of re­gret there is not only an in­abil­ity for wounds to heal, but for a na­tion to move for­ward.

Those rare few at the ex­treme out­liers of po­lit­i­cal de­bate who can find no mean­ing in say­ing sorry to others for harm done, surely have some­thing to be sorry for. Yet words alone are sim­ply not enough. The real value of an apol­ogy surely comes not with the act, but with the un­der­tak­ing that it is the be­gin­ning of a new di­rec­tion.

For the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment, just say­ing sorry for what hap­pened to the Win­drush Gen­er­a­tion is not enough, but it now has a chance to work for real progress to be made, with mean­ing­ful ac­tion to tend to the open wounds. In the Caribbean, the UK and around the globe, many will be watch­ing this process closely.

Sa­jid Javid, UK home sec­re­tary, apol­o­gised to 18 out of 11,800 peo­ple whose cases have been re­viewed so far to iden­tify if they had been wrong­fully de­tained or re­moved from the UK © Reuters

Pro­tes­tors in the UK demon­strat­ing against the Home Depart­ment’s treat­ment of the Win­drush Gen­er­a­tion

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