When Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologized for Australia’s past treatment of aborigines last February, his popularity immediately soared to the highest level ever recorded for an Australian leader.
And why not? Rudd had just wielded the most potent political tool of modern times – the apology.
The recent tidal wave of government apologies – and their little publicized after-effects – take centre stage in Apologies, the next project by Whitehorse filmmaker Mitch Miyagawa.
The son of a Japanese-Canadian interned during the Second World War, Miyagawa’s family got their own brush with government apology in September 1988, when then-prime minister Brian Mulroney formally apologized for internment – Canada’s wartime policy of rounding up Japanese-Canadians, seizing their property, and incarcerating them in concentration camps.
Internment is an oft-visited subject in Miyagawa’s work, going back to his teenage years when internment “was a story that I told to make myself unique,” he said.
Miyagawa’s The Plum Tree, which hit stages across Canada, focuses on George, a young Japanese-Canadian man who visits what used to be his family’s farm looking for family heirlooms that were reportedly buried in the backyard.
“It’s about a young third generation Japanese Canadian who really wanted to try to right the wrong that had happened to his family – even though his family wanted to let it go,” said Miyagawa.
The Asahi Baseball Story, a television drama in development, tells the story of the unbeatable Japanese-Canadian Asahi baseball team – and the role baseball played during their internment.
While Miyagawa delved artistically into his own connection to internment, the stoic, Buddhist sensibilities of his family viewed the event as a subject best forgotten.
“There’s some very deep waters, but still waters – still waters that I find very difficult to read,” said Miyagawa.
With the birth of his own children, Miyagawa began to re-examine the effect that his internment narratives were having upon his own family history.
“I’m not sure that I want to tell them that their family was a victim, that their grandfather’s family was a victim, that their grandmother’s family was a victim,” he said.
Historical wrongdoings – and the apologies they spurn – needed closer inspection, both for Canadian society and Miyagawa’s own family understanding.
Starting in the 1980s, apologies have become political cocaine. Across the globe, leaders have eagerly mounted podiums and expressed regret for events that occurred years, decades or centuries before their birth.
In 2006, Harper apologized to Chinese Canadians affected by the head tax.
Last August, emboldened by his residential school apology, Harper apologized to Vancouver Sikhs for the 1914 Komagata Maru incident – an event where a shipload of Indians seeking a better life in Canada were turned away. The apology was swiftly rejected by Vancouver’s Sikh community.
Pope John Paul II took pains to undo centuries of Catholics’ wrongdoings – apologizing for everything from the Crusades to the Spanish conquest of Mesoamerica, Catholic involvement in the slave trade and even the 17th-century persecution of Italian scientist Galileo Galilei.
Even the stiff-upper-lip Brits jumped onto the apology bandwagon in 2007, with then-prime minister Tony Blair apologizing for British involvement in the slave trade.
An emerging “reparations bureaucracy” has clandestinely emerged within the Canadian government, said Miyagawa.
The Winnipeg-based Community Historical Recognition Program does not list “apology-making” as its stated goal, but rather, provides funding to “ethno-cultural communities affected by historical wartime measures and/or immigration restrictions.”
Miyagawa was a devoted supporter of apologies when he launched into the project – a position he would have shared with two-thirds of Canadians. In an Ipsos-Reid poll conducted days before Harper’s residential school apology, two out of every three Canadians expressed support for “apologizing for historic wrongdoings.”
The “clean slate” ideal of political apologies is not so clear-cut, he discovered.
“Some people do feel satisfied; it’s what they want and need, it’s a way to take what’s happened to them … and live with it,” said Miyagawa.
“For others, it can make it worse – make people more bitter and more angry and more consumed by what’s happened to them,” he said.
In one interview, Apologies features a Yukon First Nation man who went to residential school for 13 years in Whitehorse.
“They lost all his records so he’s having to fight to prove that he actually was in residential school – even though he wants desperately to forget it,” said Miyagawa.
The spectrum of wronged communities in Canada is broad, a logistical plus for an apology-focused film.
“There’s lots of groups to choose from,” said Miyagawa.
Miyagawa has already filmed interviews with a Doukhobor separated from her family and forced into a government-run school.
A lesser-known internment occurred during the First World War, when 70,000 Canadians of Austro-Hungarian descent were rounded up into camps by the federal government.
A danger is that apologies can become false historical milestones. Once “sorry” has been proclaimed from the highest office of the nation, a perception arises that “the apology’s done and everything is fixed,” said Miyagawa.
By focusing blame on the past, the wrongs of contemporary society may be glossed over, he warns.
“The residential school apology was a really, really powerful moment, but at the same time there wasn’t a lot of taking accountability for the kinds of things that continue to happen in the First Nations community,” said Miyagawa.
The families of Omar Khadr and temporary foreign workers may one day find themselves in the lineup for government apologies – joining groups like the Acadians, long-embroiled in campaigns to seek apology for their 18th-century expulsion from the Maritimes.
When every black mark in history is seized upon as apology-fodder, their meaning can ultimately become watered down.
“I think that’s one of the dangers of these apologies; because they can be such a powerful and symbolic moment, we can confuse the saying with the doing,” said Miyagawa.
Miyagawa, along with science fiction writer Marcelle Dube, will be reading at the Whitehorse Library this Thursday starting at 7:30. Apologies is currently in pre-production.
Contact Tristin Hopper at