A Public Apology to Siksika Nation, by AA Bronson with an essay by Ben Miller, a publication accompanying the performance of the same name at the Toronto Biennial 2019, produced especially for the occasion (photo by AA Bronson)

In June 2020, amidst the public uproar that followed the killing of George Floyd, a dashcam video of the violent arrest of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam surfaced online. In the video, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officer is seen tackling Adam to the ground in a Fort McMurray, Alberta parking lot and punching him in the head.

An initial review by RCMP of the incident, which had taken place in March, found that the officer’s actions were reasonable — but two weeks following the release of the video (which Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau described as “shocking”), the Crown dismissed all charges against Adam, and the incident was referred to Alberta’s Serious Incident Response Team. In the days that followed, as the RCMP scrambled to address questions about systemic racism within the force, Adam received a windfall of personal apologies from politicians and public figures — though to date, the RCMP has yet to apologize.

Border of the Siksika Nation, Alberta, Canada, 2018 (photo by Ben Miller)

For Canadians, this type of incident is all too familiar. Despite a growing number of public apologies to Canada’s Indigenous peoples — including, most notably, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 2008 apology for the Canadian residential school system — the health, safety, and dignity of Indigenous peoples and minorities continues to be threatened by systemic racism, causing many Canadians, including me, to remain skeptical about the sincerity of, and motivations behind, public apologies.

In light of these ongoing failures, a cynical view of public apology is, in many ways, justified.  At their best, public apologies have the power to initiate real, systemic change, by setting into motion a chain of events that begin to address injustices. But all too often, they lack the commitment of funds, time, resources, or policy changes required to make meaningful progress toward reconciliation or to empower the injured party.  Without these elements, apologies run the risk of becoming empty gestures — a fact that has formed a central part of the ongoing debate regarding the authenticity and effectiveness of public apology in many countries, including Australia, New Zealand, and the United States.

In some cases, this may be intentional. Politicians — most notably in Canada and Australia — have been accused of using apologies to Indigenous peoples as rhetorical devices that enable the state to put their violent past behind them and move on. In these cases, apology not only marks a symbolic new beginning between state and victim, it signifies the end of the state’s liability for its past actions. Though these apologies may sound sincere, critics suspect they are primarily motivated by hidden political agendas that benefit the state and its public image more so than the victims.

Given this political sleight-of-hand, it has become difficult to discern a sincere public apology from one that is motivated by ulterior political motives. Further, it has become clear that official apologies are flawed structures, perhaps incapable of doing what they portend to do: lay the groundwork for improved future relationships between groups. Faced with this reality, it seems necessary to question the very practice of public apology, and its ability to instigate real change. Is public apology a practice that should be abandoned altogether, or is there a way to reimagine the traditional format of apology as a process that allows us to move closer to reconciliation?

One recent project to emerge from the art scene may provide some guidance. In September 2019, Canadian artist AA Bronson presented “A Public Apology to Siksika Nation(2019) at the inaugural Toronto Biennial of Art. The apology was Bronson’s attempt to acknowledge the harm done by his great-grandfather, Reverend John William Tims, the first Anglican missionary to Siksika Nation (a First Nation in southern Alberta, part of the Blackfoot Confederacy, whose land claim originally extended across present-day Montana, Alberta, and Saskatchewan).

From 1883 to 1895, Tims built and ran the first Anglican mission church and residential schools on Siksika Reserve, while exercising, in Bronson’s own words, a “sometimes fanatical” level of control. Tims’s tenure ended abruptly when he fled the reserve following a violent, yet little-known uprising called the Siksika Rebellion.

Portrait of Archdeacon J. W. Tims, Anglican missionary (ca. 1896) (image courtesy of the Library & Archives of the Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Alberta, Canada)

“A Public Apology to Siksika Nation” stems from Bronson’s personal struggle with this history, and from a desire to release himself and his family from the enormous weight of Tims’s cultural crimes — guilt Bronson says his family members have dealt with, in different ways, for generations.

My great-grandfather thought he was doing good, of course. My grandfather was in 100 % denial. My father spent his life trying in a way to be the “good slave owner” — trying to be kind, and trying to be generous, and trying to be accepting of Native culture. But he was still ultimately just, you know, the good plantation owner rather than the bad plantation owner.

Over 100 years later, in Bronson’s hands, coping with inherited guilt takes another form. Part performance, part exhibition, part publication, “A Public Apology to Siksika Nation” is a rare experiment in the design of apology. Unbound by concerns with litigation or public relations typically faced by politicians, Bronson has been free to explore apology as an extension of his artistic practice, which, since his first days as a member of General Idea in the 1960s, has largely been defined by both collaboration and disrupting the status quo.

Despite the freedom that artistic license affords him, it seems fair to meet Bronson’s apology with a certain degree of skepticism. From a distance, aspects of his apology seem to resemble those government apologies the public has grown weary of.  Bronson is, after all, a descendent of colonizers, performing an apology for historical injustices which he ultimately cannot undo.

Bronson is aware of how his efforts might be perceived poorly. “I wanted to avoid the thing of being the white saviour coming in,” Bronson says. “I didn’t want to be the centre of attention in all of this. And that’s very, very difficult to avoid of course.”

But those who have seen the apology performed and were involved with its development — including Bronson’s collaborator, Siksika artist Adrian Stimson — insist there is something deeper at play.

L to R: AA Bronson and Adrian Stimson looking at the Old Sun Residential School, now the Old Sun Community College, on the Siksika Reserve, Alberta, Canada, 2018 (photo by Ben Miller)

“This nation-to-nation relationship requires work, and it requires work on behalf of the one making the apology,” says Stimson, who, in addition to creating an artistic response to Bronson’s apology, acted as a facilitator between Bronson and the Siksika chief, council, and community.  “And what I found was that AA was doing the work. He was looking at the history, he came from a deep place within himself. I know for years he’s been thinking about this and how he would address it.”

Given its intimate nature, “A Public Apology to Siksika Nation” could be interpreted as one man’s personal quest for absolution — and indeed, Bronson admits that his motivations for the project are partly self-serving.  “It’s not like I have a big picture view of apologies and I’m trying to have some effect on the larger picture,” says Bronson. “It’s more just, on some level, it’s kind of selfish, I suppose, because I’m just doing what I need to do for my own sanity.”

Yet Bronson insists he undertook the project without any expectations of what might result. It’s an approach he says is characteristic of his artistic practice.

“I come from the ‘60s, so in my generation, any talk of achievement would be battered down immediately. We were all about process; we were not about goals,” says Bronson. “Everything is so goal-oriented now, and it always strikes me as kind of alien from my generation’s viewpoint. I did not have any goals in doing this at all. I just felt compelled to do it.”

This philosophy has enabled Bronson to move past what scholar Jürgen WKremer describes as “the tragedy of the modernist Western mind” — that is, “the prevalent conviction that closure, Truth, and certainty are possible and desirable goals.” Kremer’s observation, written in his afterward to Blackfoot author Betty Bastien’s seminal book Blackfoot Ways of Knowing: The Worldview of the Siksikaitsitapi, points to the fact that some victims of historical violence never come to a place where they forgive.

Stimson acknowledges that some individuals will remain skeptical of Bronson’s apology, despite good intentions. “I know on the First Nations side there are people who are deeply hurt, and apology will never do,” he says. “And that’s okay.” Stimson, for his part, believes that working with Bronson has helped him cope with the “disease of racism.” Further, he notes that by letting go of expectations, both he and Bronson have been able to work in alignment with the Blackfoot ways of knowing that Bastien describes.

“It’s a journey. And I think it fits very well with Blackfoot ways of knowing … this idea that we don’t know what lies ahead of us sometimes, and that we shouldn’t have expectations about how things can, and should, be. What it is, is about here and now, and the process we’re undertaking with each other,” Stimson says. This area of overlap between Bronson’s artistic process and the Blackfoot world view raises an important question: By letting go of preconceptions of achievement and expectations of forgiveness, can we invite Indigenous ways of knowing to help us disrupt the flawed structures of apology currently in place?

It’s a question that Bronson seems to get at even more directly in the design and delivery of his apology text, which borrows its format from St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, a biblical text that Bronson has used as a literary framework in the past for projects like “Love Letter to Berlin” (2018) and “A Letter to Montreal: Making Love With Jesus” (2010). “Many of Paul’s books in the Bible are letters to particular communities, or an address, really,” Bronson describes.  “So, Galatians was to Galatia, and it starts by saying who he is, who these people are, and why he’s there and then, you know, what he’s about.”

“Jesus Loves Me” and “When I Survey” hymns translated into Siksika by Archdeacon J. W. Tims (from the collection of AA Bronson courtesy the artist)

On one hand, Paul’s letter format might be seen as a singularly Christian reference, linking Bronson’s apology directly to the Christian conception of atonement or redemption: the idea that one can confess their sins and be forgiven. But for Bronson, the format also recalls a manner of speaking he first encountered as a teenager, at the First Annual Indian and Métis Youth Conference in Winnipeg. “It was this thing of sitting in a circle and then going around the circle, one by one, in sequence, and each person says who they are, who their people are, where they’re from, and then tells a little bit of their story and why they’re there,” he says.

Bronson has encountered this format in various places since, and it has been an important influence on his life’s work. “It’s kind of been a thread through my life, that format of speech where you’re speaking in the present moment about what is,” he says.

It is a format particularly suited to this apology. By borrowing from both Christian and Indigenous models of public address, Bronson explores the intersection of two worldviews that — as evidenced by the conflict between Rev. Tims and the Siksika — have historically been at odds. In doing so, Bronson subverts traditional apology structures, which not only hold implicit expectations of atonement or forgiveness, but also fail to incorporate the belief systems of those for whom the apology is intended.

Beyond the speech act of apology itself, however, there is the area of material redress to consider. To this end, one object deserves closer attention: a small paperback booklet containing Bronson’s apology text (which he calls the “real heart of the apology”) and a selection of work generated by Bronson’s recent research, including a selection of photos from the Glenbow Museum Archives, an essay by Bronson’s research assistant Ben Miller, and a timeline of events related to the 1895 Siksika Rebellion.

AA Bronson at the Library & Archives of the Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Alberta, Canada, 2018 (photo by Ben Miller)

Published in a run of 14,000 copies and distributed for free at the biennial, the booklet is compact, lightweight, and portable — “something that could be hidden in a purse or pocket,” notes Bronson. Printed in black and white on inexpensive paper, it has the familiar, well-worn quality of a paperback novel.

“The idea was to make it almost disposable,” Bronson says. “It was modelled after Harlequin romance, so it was intended to be extremely cheap to produce.”The booklet’s format is striking for its departure from other, more official apology documents — for instance, the final report issued by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada in 2015. The report contains the commission’s findings on Canada’s residential school system, concluding with 94 “calls to action,” intended to redress the legacy of the schools and to help advance reconciliation efforts. Published as a series of several volumes totalling thousands of pages, the document is staggeringly comprehensive. For the everyday citizen it makes for an intimidating read.

Interior of the first Anglican mission church on the Blackfoot Reserve (ca. 1886) (photograph by Boorne and May, Calgary, Alberta, Canada; image courtesy of the Library & Archives of the Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Alberta, Canada)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, most Canadians have failed to absorb the TRC Final Report in detail.  “Most people don’t have a clue,” says Stimson. “They don’t know the histories. They know about the [2008] apology, but they don’t really know the tenets of it. None of them have ever read the reports. So, it becomes sort of disheartening.”

This is why Bronson’s booklet is remarkable: By design, A Public Apology to Siksika Nation offers the public what many official apology documents do not: an accessible way for the general public to understand and engage with reconciliation on a personal level. “You know, it’s getting out there,” says Stimson. “People are looking at it. And hopefully, there’s something in there that is specific to them and understanding what they can do, and how they can approach these things.”

Bronson’s recent publication of second, hardcover edition of A Public Apology to Siksika Nation points to yet another significant contribution of the book: It has become an historical document and a lasting resource for the Siksika community.

“A lot of our history is sort of buried or lost or destroyed when it comes to these kinds of things,” explains Stimson. “And often the research that is found can help us in a number of ways. It could be in claims that we’re making, or historical reviews … it builds our history and knowledge here on the Nation.”

As Bastien notes in Blackfoot Ways of Knowing, the passing down of cultural and spiritual knowledge is critical to the ability of Blackfoot people to heal from the impact of colonization.  Bronson participates in this process of healing by piecing together evidence of the Siksika Rebellion — a story which he says “is not in the history books” — and making it accessible to present and future generations.

Portrait of Old Sun, head chief of the North Blackfoot (Siksika), Alberta, wearing his chief’s coat and treaty medal. Hat trimmed with bright ribbons by Mrs. J. W. Tims, 1883.
Image courtesy of the Library & Archives of the Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Alberta, Canada)

This long view of the future is representative of the way Bronson sees “A Public Apology to Siksika Nation” — not as one discreet event or project, but as an ongoing, open-ended, lifelong process. “I figure I’ll be doing this project for the rest of my life,” says Bronson. “It’s still very much incomplete.  I’m still at a point where I feel like I’m only part-way through.”

Simson agrees. “Because it’s so intimate and so personal, it’s going to go on forever in our world, in our own art practices,” says Stimson. “It’s not the end. And that speaks to this idea of mutual respect and trust-building … how do we move forward from our awful histories?”

Bronson’s next intervention will be to re-enact his apology on Siksika soil. Though the pandemic has caused some uncertainty about the timing of this event, Bronson says this future apology will be smaller and more intimate than his previous performance at the Toronto Biennial, and, in contrast, may involve little or no documentation of the apology itself.

“I’ve done a lot of projects where I didn’t keep any record of what happened, and I made no documents of any sort, and I allowed no audience,” Bronson says. “And I’m quite tempted to do it the same way. To have just me and Siksika Nation and nobody else and no document of what happens.

This brings us to an important realization. Bronson’s “public” apology perhaps finds its greatest success in private, in the personal connections he has made and relationships he has built one-to-one. Intentionally or not, Bronson has created a new model for apology that empowers individuals to take apology into their own hands, instead of waiting for politicians or policing bodies like the RCMP to make things right. This is an important idea to grasp — and to mirror — if we want apologies to contribute to systemic change.

“The real apologies are between people, individuals,” Stimson says. “It’s about trust-building between individuals. And until that happens, until people start engaging on that level, apologies from a government perspective sometimes seem pretty meaningless.”

Andrea Lacalamita is a licensed architect and design historian based in Toronto, Canada. She is also currently a research fellow at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum and a professor of art, architecture,...