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.
FIRST NATIONS PROTESTS: FROM OKA TO CALEDONIA
Canadian soldier Patrick Cloutier and Saskatchewan Native Brad Laroque alias "Freddy Kruger" come face to face in a tense standoff at the Kahnesatake reserve in Oka, Quebec, Saturday September 1, 1990. Twenty plus years after an armed standoff at Oka laid Canada's often difficult relationship with its native peoples bare in international headlines, the bitterly contested land remains in legal limbo. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Shaney Komulainen)
A warrior raises his weapon as he stands on an overturned police vehicle blocking a highway at the Kahnesetake reserve near Oka, Quebec July 11, 1990 after a police assault to remove Mohawk barriers failed. Twenty plus years after an armed standoff at Oka laid Canada's often difficult relationship with its native peoples bare in international headlines, the bitterly contested land remains in legal limbo. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tom Hanson)
A Quebec Metis places a stick with an eagle feather tied to it into the barrel of a machine gun mounted on an army armored vehicle at Oka Thursday, Aug. 23, 1990. The vehicle was one of two positioned a few metres away from the barricade causing a breakdown in negotiations. Twenty plus years after an armed standoff at Oka laid Canada's often difficult relationship with its native peoples bare in international headlines, the bitterly contested land remains in legal limbo. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Bill Grimshaw)
A Mohawk Indian winds up to punch a soldier during a fight that took place on the Khanawake reserve on Montreal's south shore in 1990. The army broke up the fight by shooting into the air. Twenty plus years after an armed standoff at Oka laid Canada's often difficult relationship with its native peoples bare in international headlines, the bitterly contested land remains in legal limbo. (CP PHOTO)
Two aboriginal protesters man a barricade near the entrance to Ipperwash Provincial Park, near Ipperwash Beach, Ont., on Sept. 7, 1995. (CP PHOTO)
Ken Wolf, 9, walks away from a graffiti-covered smoldering car near the entrance to the Ipperwash Provincial Park in this September 7, 1995 photo. A group of aboriginal protesters were occupying the park and nearby military base. (CP PHOTO)
Caledonian activist Gary McHale (right) is confronted by a Six Nations Protester as he attempts to lead members of Canadian Advocates for Charter Equality (CANACE) in carrying a makeshift monument to Six Nations land in Caledonia, Ont., on Sunday February 27, 2011. CANACE claim inequality in treatment for Caledonian residents from Ontario Provincial Police compared to that of the Six Nation population. They planned to plant a monument of six nation property to demand an apology from the OPP, but were turned back by protesters. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
First Nations people of the Grand River Territory stand with protest signs as they force the redirection of the Vancover 2010 Olympic Torch Relay from entering The Six Nations land Monday, December 21, 2009 near Caledonia, Ontario. The Olympic torch's journey across Canada was forced to take a detour in the face of aboriginal opposition to the Games, with an Ontario First Nation rerouting its relay amid a protest from a splinter group in the community. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dave Chidley)
Six Nations protesters guard the front entrance of a housing development in Hagersville, Ont., just south of the 15-month aboriginal occupation at Caledonia on Wednesday, May 23, 2007. The protest was peaceful. (CP PHOTO/Nathan Denette)
Mohawk protestors block a road near the railway tracks near Marysville, Ont. with a bus and a bonfire Friday April 21, 2006. The natives showed their support to fellow natives in Caledonia, Ont. where they were in a stand off with police regarding land claims.(CP PHOTO/Jonathan Hayward)