Forgiving nation

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 April, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 April, 2004, 12:00am

To err is human, but to forgive, Canadian. The world may frown on our seal hunts and hockey violence, but Canada also has a soft spot for repentant sinners - as long as their contrition includes tears on prime-time TV.

Just after the Easter weekend, Svend Robinson, a member of parliament for 25 years, from Burnaby, near Vancouver, admitted to reporters that during a visit to an auction house he had 'pocketed' a diamond ring worth C$50,000 (HK$290,000). He kept the ring for a couple of days, then felt terrible, and gave it back. He said he was suffering from stress and would be taking medical leave. While newspapers debated the sincerity of his confession, the auction house said it would not press charges, and many Canadians empathised with Mr Robinson.

Tearful apologies work, but it helps if you are famous. Earlier this year, Vancouver ice hockey star Todd Bertuzzi punched opponent Steve Moore during a game, then jumped on his back and broke Moore's neck. It is not clear if Moore will play again. Bertuzzi was suspended for the season, and went on television to say he was sorry. He broke down and cried. Most hockey fans forgave him. Some say this readiness to forgive may have something to do with being the northern neighbour of a superpower. We crave a distinct identity and like to believe we are more fair-minded, and more tolerant of human frailty.

In January last year, British Columbia premier Gordon Campbell admitted (after he was caught) that he had driven a car while drunk on holiday in Hawaii. Campbell broke down on TV, promised never to take another drink, and said he would enter an alcohol treatment programme. British Columbians forgave him.

But sometimes this forgiveness reflex borders on the surreal. Take the case of the Khadr family, Pakistani-Canadians with strong links to al-Qaeda. In a notorious TV interview, the mother said she would encourage her children to fight for, and even die for, Osama bin Laden. And she said the September 11 attack was justified. Then, she brought her injured son Karim to Canada and insisted on free medical care. Thousands of Canadians were outraged, but the federal government forgave her.

It sounds too good to be true. And maybe it is. One Toronto columnist noted that two years ago, an 85-year-old woman with Alzheimer's disease was caught shoplifting C$3 worth of chicken in Toronto. She was threatened with arrest and banished from the store for life. Because she was anonymous, and there were no cameras to record her tears, she felt the full weight of the law. A cynic might conclude that forgiveness only exists as a form of reality TV.