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Should Canada Say It's Sorry More Often?

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A Sorry State was originally an award-winning essay in Walrus Magazine, and is now his first film.

I've been obsessed with apologies for the past three years. I have one of the most apologized-to families in the country -- maybe the world.

I realized this when I watched Prime Minister Stephen Harper's apology to residential school survivors in 2008. My Dad's second wife, Etheline, was the third generation of her family to go to residential school.

Twenty years earlier, my father Bob had received an apology from Brian Mulroney for the internment of his Japanese-Canadian family during World War II.

After the apology to Etheline and other residential school attendees, I remembered Harper's previous apology to the Chinese Head Tax payers two years earlier. I phoned my mother's second husband, Harvey, a Chinese-Canadian.

I asked him if his family was affected. Yes, he said. His father and grandfather had both paid. In fact, his sister still had his father's original head tax certificate.

I was aware that my family had become a multi-culti case study, but when I realized the government had apologized to us three times, it went from being a strange coincidence to a kind of joke (Q: How does a Canadian say hello? A: I'm sorry).

Soon, though, I started wondering what these apologies really meant, and whether they actually did any good.

With the support of TVO, I turned my questions into a documentary film, called A Sorry State, which premieres this month.

In the film, I seek out the real meaning of government apologies through the eyes of my parents and stepparents, my children, and through interviews and experiences with others involved in apologies.

I discover that Canada is at the front of a worldwide wave of state regret, as countries everywhere grapple with the dark effects of their colonial pasts.

I was both the main character in the film, experiencing a deeply personal journey, and the storyteller crafting a narrative. It was the most challenging project of my creative career, and I learned so much about what can make an apology meaningful.

1. A good apology says much more than just sorry. Sorry has a nice ring, but it's empty without a genuine acknowledgment of what happened and the apologizer's role.

In many government apologies, there's a tendency to write off harmful actions as a single regrettable mistake by past leaders -- often avoiding any real thought about the present.

In the Residential School apology, for instance, there was very little mention about how today's government, and all citizens of Canada, have benefited from residential schools and policies of assimilation.

2. Government apologies are rare moments of national reflection. As cynical as many are about the sincerity of government apologies, they are brief moments when, as a country, we actually consider our past and how it affects the present.

Without Mulroney's apology in 1988 to the Japanese-Canadians (or more accurately, without the years of community work by activists to make the apology happen), the tragic story of the internment of thousands of Canadian citizens never would've hit our collective consciousness.

3. Apologies should be about beginnings, not endings. Truly taking responsibility for the past means committing to changing the future. Rather than trying to only close a chapter, leaders need to show how they will change future policies and actions to prevent such events from occurring again.

In one of life's many ironies, I learned this last lesson the hard way. As I put the finishing touches on the film last summer, I had a big apology of my own to make.

Despite all I'd learned, taking responsibility for hurting someone I loved was the hardest thing I've ever done. And I've had to acknowledge this pain over and over, in my commitment to healing the relationship.

Too many times we hope that we can just say sorry and be done with it. But real reconciliation and change takes a long time.

So what can we do in this sorry state we live in?

Every May 26, Australia has a National Sorry Day to remember the forcible removal of Aboriginal children from their homes. Maybe they're on to something.

We have a day of remembrance every year for the sacrifices of our military personnel during war. Why not a day of sorrow and acknowledgment for those that have suffered past racist and discriminatory actions for the sake of our national interest, when we reflect on these actions and what we can all do to prevent them from happening again?

Just as Remembrance Day is about our commitment to peace, a Sorry Day would be about our commitment to human rights and equality.

And meanwhile, let's all become great apologizers in our own lives. Now that I'm done the film, I'm available for apology coaching. Get in touch - especially you, Mr. Harper.

A Sorry State makes its world television premiere on TVO Wednesday January 9 at 9 pm and can be streamed at tvo.org following the broadcast.

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