If Canadians are stereotypically polite, then Mitch Miyagawa’s family could be poster children for the country.
They’re always receiving apologies. As he puts it in his new documentary, A Sorry State (Up and Away Productions), they may just be “the most apologized to family in the world.”
But the first-person film, which largely centres on a journey Miyagawa takes to Alberta, was not originally supposed to focus on his family, he said.
“I started out this film with some very big ideas,” explained the co-ordinator of Yukon Cultures Connect at Yukon College. “I wanted to go around the world and talk about worldwide apologies, and I interviewed a bunch of people who were involved in other apology groups. And I always just saw my family story as a small thread in it.”
But it became more.
“The process of the film was really cutting away everything until all that was left was the personal story that was the most powerful, and I think that’s what’s most often the case.”
The Canadian government has apologized to three members of Miyagawa’s family. His father, Bob, a Japanese-Canadian, received an apology from Brian Mulroney in 1988. Mulroney’s government said sorry for the internment of 22,000 Japanese-Canadians during World War 2.
In 2006, Stephen Harper apologized to Miyagawa’s stepfather’s family. His stepfather, Harvey Kwan, is Chinese. Kwan’s father paid the $500 head tax when he came to Canada at age 14. Two years later, Miyagawa’s stepmother, Etheline Blind, received a formal apology when Harper apologized to the former students of residential schools. Etheline went to the Gordon Residential School in Punnichy, Sask. She was the third generation of her family to attend residential schools.
Miyagawa has told the story publicly before. A personal essay by the same name was published in The Walrus magazine in 2009. His family history inspired the play, The Plum Tree.
But telling the story through this medium presents unique challenges – his family is fairly soft-spoken, he said. So he worked to make it as visual as possible. He toured a residential school in British Columbia with Etheline, and she told him about her experiences as a student. He and his father went searching for the old southern Alberta farmhouses his family lived in after they were interned.
While Miyagawa looked for common themes, everyone responds to these apologies differently, he said.
For example, his stepfather gained a sense of acceptance from the apology, said Miyagawa. “Even though he was born here, raised here, I think he’s always felt a little ambivalent about being Chinese,” he said. But as Kwan explains in the film, the apology wouldn’t have meant much to his parents. They moved to Canada for a better life and knew they wouldn’t be treated well when they got here, he said. Only people who paid the head tax and their spouses received any money, he said, so Kwan didn’t get any.
His stepmother was originally enthusiastic about the apology to residential school survivors. But her attitude has changed over time, said Miyagawa. A lot of money can be involved with the apologies, but survivors have to fill out applications to receive it.
They’re like “scorecards for abuse,” said Miyagawa. The process can be very clinical, and, for some, reliving the experiences can be traumatic, he said. And receiving money doesn’t equal healing. His stepmother has helped many people through the application process, and has seen some people spend much of what they’ve received on alcohol, he said.
“She’s seen it not doing the healing work that it’s supposed to. So she’s grown quite cynical of it, I think,” her stepson said.
Learning about different reactions to apologies brought healing in another way.
His parents, who split up around the time Mulroney issued the apology to Japanese-Canadians, remarried when he was an adult. There was always a kind of distance between himself and his parents’ new spouses, he said. Making the film helped him understand their stories better.
It also helped him understand his own father, who passed away before the documentary was completed, he said. Part of the film is about the two men learning to understand each other; the trip to Alberta was one of the last main trips they did together. When Miyagawa was growing up, his father never said much negative about being interned. He never really felt he needed to be apologized to, the filmmaker said. He was a boy when it happened, and it was like a big adventure for him, added Miyagawa.
The film is about more than just going away – it’s also about coming home and telling the stories about the apologies. It’s a hard story to tell. Miyagawa was somewhat cynical about government apologies when he started the project, he said. The announcements can just seem like empty words, tactics for politicians to get votes. Some of these criticisms may be valid, he said.
“But at the same time, there’s not a lot of places where leaders will get up and actually say sorry and recognize that their government has done wrong. So as flawed as they are, I think they’re incredibly powerful moments and important moments, and I hope that people don’t get too jaded by them,” said Miyagawa.
Multiculturalism has only been a large focus in the country for a few decades, he said. The country’s still coming to terms with the effects of colonialism, he added. When he tells his two sons about the apologies, he tries to use it as an example of taking responsibility and following words with actions. But his description of their family is much more simple.
“I tell them we have a very special family,” he said.
A Sorry State premiered at the Edmonton Film Festival. In the new year, it will be broadcast on TVO and the Knowledge/Access Networks. He’s applied to other festivals, but the film is best suited for small audiences, he said. He hopes it will help start discussions about how people are treated in Canada.
The Whitehorse premier is Nov. 25 at the Yukon Arts Centre as part of the Available Light Film Festival. Tickets are $12. Yukon Film Society members pay $10. The show starts at 8 p.m.
Contact Meagan Gillmore at