Forgiving a nation

The decision to forgive can often be a turning point. While it can sometimes be intensely personal, it can also have dramatic effects on an entire nation.

Forgiving a nation
Mark Sakamoto (Photo by Alexia Kapralos)

The decision to forgive can often be a turning point. While it can sometimes be intensely personal, it can also have dramatic effects on an entire nation.

For Mark Sakamoto, forgiveness has had life-altering effects many times over.

His best-selling memoir, Forgiveness, recounts how his maternal grandfather Ralph MacLean was held as a prisoner of war by the Japanese in Hong Kong in the Second World War, while his paternal grandmother Mitsue Sakamoto was forced to leave Vancouver and work in rural Alberta simply because of her Japanese heritage.

While the title of the book comes in part from the very personal forgiveness that took place when Sakamoto’s grandparents eventually met, the book itself came about through forgiveness that played out on a much larger scale.

In 2011, the Japanese government officially apologized to Canada for its treatment of prisoners held during the Second World War, essentially asking former prisoners like Sakamoto’s grandfather for forgiveness. Erin O’Toole, a friend who Sakamoto met as a fellow law student at Dalhousie, knew Sakamoto’s family history. O’Toole, who went on to become a Conservative Member of Parliament, suggested to John Stackhouse, then-editor of The Globe and Mail, that Sakamoto write an essay tying his family history to the Japanese government’s apology.

The essay, published under Mark and his brother Daniel’s name, explains that, without forgiveness, he and his brother would never have been born.

After the essay was published, Sakamoto received a book deal from Harper Collins, which eventually turned into his memoir. 

“That put me on a journey,” Sakamoto recounts from his office in downtown Toronto. It was a “professional journey that was incredibly personal.”

It “really pushed me in ways that I’ve never been pushed before,” he says.

While writing his memoir, Sakamoto retained his job as a senior vice president at Think Research, a health-tech company in Toronto where he still works, but his personal story has made him a household name. 

Most recently, the book was the winner of CBC’s popular Canada Reads competition in 2018 and has now been optioned to be made into a television series.

Although Sakamoto’s personal history has been thrust into the public sphere, he has always been interested politics and nation building.

“For some reason, my mom let me watch The National as a really young kid. I think it was probably on at 10 o’clock at night,” he says. “I had no business being up that late, but she let me watch Knowlton Nash and The National and that was really my insight into the world. And I got really, really interested in politics and foreign affairs and global affairs and domestic Canadian politics.”

That interest in Canadian politics led him to leave his hometown of Medicine Hat, Alta. and study political science at the University of Calgary, where his tendency to bridge divides — a quality in short supply in contemporary politics — began. 

“[The] University of Calgary’s political science department was a pretty right-wing group at the time. Some of the leading intellectuals around the Reform Party came out at the seventh floor, University of Calgary. It was a great place for me, particularly as a progressive-minded person; it was good for me to be intellectually engaged with folks that I didn’t agree with.”

After his undergraduate degree, Sakamoto again sought an opportunity to broaden his perspectives on Canada and accepted an offer at Dalhousie’s law school in Halifax. 

“Dalhousie was really the school that I wanted to go to,” he says. “So many prime ministers have gone there. I didn’t know this for sure, but my gut said that Dalhousie would be the most national of law schools. By national I mean kids coming from a whole bunch of different places in the country and then those same kids going home and [practising] in their respective hometowns and provinces. And that really was the case. So many of my good friends today are living in St. John’s, living in Halifax, living in Winnipeg living and Victoria, Vancouver and everywhere in between.”

The contacts he made at Dalhousie served him well throughout his career, including the fateful friendship with O’Toole, who, in addition to helping Sakamoto launch his literary career, became another example of Sakamoto rejecting partisan divides.

After working at Heenan Blaikie LLP in Toronto as a summer and articling student, Sakamoto then landed a job at the CBC, negotiating development and production licensing deals. He had worked throughout his youth with his uncle’s live music business in Alberta, and he wanted to work with artists again. This time, he applied his legal training to help artists tell their stories to Canadians, a form of nation building that also bridges the personal and political.

“The team that I worked with at CBC were some of the finest lawyers I’ve ever worked with,” he says. “They don’t make as much as folks on Bay Street. Most of them have left Bay Street to work there. And they were really committed to the CBC mission of telling Canadian stories.”

Sakamoto spent more than five years at the CBC, and then politics drew him in — this time to work on Michael Ignatieff’s Liberal Party leadership campaign. 

By this time, many of Sakamoto’s friends were senior Liberal strategists who were well connected in Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto, but they also needed contacts from across the country for the campaign.

Ignatieff, he says, “was teaching at Harvard and a couple of friends of mine went down to Harvard to meet him. Whenever the question was does anyone know anybody in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Alberta, B.C., I was sort of the one guy that would be putting up his hand in large part because of my friendships that were forged at Dalhousie. I spent a lot of time travelling the country with Michael and his wife Zsuzsanna . . . [during] those early days of his political career, and it was a blast.”

Ignatieff’s leadership campaign eventually succeeded, landing Sakamoto a job as the director of political operations within the leadership office for the Official Opposition. But Sakamoto eventually realized he didn’t want to be in Ottawa, since his wife and family had stayed in Toronto.

“I just thought what am I doing here? This is not the way that I’m going to be a father. I’m not going to be a commuting father.”

While he did decide to move back to Toronto and eventually joined Think Research, his dilemma made him realize the deep personal sacrifices that politicians in all parties often make in the service of nation building. “It’s such a tough lifestyle if you’re an MP from British Columbia or Northern Ontario or rural Saskatchewan. It’s just incredible what they sacrifice in terms of their family sacrifice for this great country to exist.”

Despite his commitment to crossing the partisan divide, though, his family’s history has also entrenched his belief in fundamental human rights and progressive politics.

“If the Charter was in place during the Second World War, my grandparents would not have been ethnically cleansed and moved 100 miles out of Vancouver for no reason outside of their ethnicity. The court would have had to overrule that piece of legislation.”

Sakamoto’s commitment to his country, like that of his grandparents before him, has also meant that he has had to forgive. In his memoir, he recounts being told that the boardroom that Ignatieff’s team was using as the opposition boardroom had also been used as former prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King’s war room in the Second World War:

I tried to maintain my composure while I met a few Members of Parliament in King’s War Room. The meeting lasted about thirty minutes and I don’t recall a single word spoken. I was thinking about the men who had once met around that very table, reviewing reports, sipping water, writing notes. Making decisions.

Like the decision to send Ralph Augustus MacLean to war.

Like the decision to intern Mitsue and [her husband] Hideo Sakamoto.

But if his family’s history had not been so painful, Sakamoto would also not have had such a profound story to tell, a story he has had the privilege to tell so many Canadians. He recounts how he offered forgiveness to a country that had wronged his family:

As I sat in King’s War Room, the sun broke through the thick clouds, its light filtering in through the massive arched windows. The brightness seemed to open the room to me. And then it opened my country to me, illuminating, in that moment, in how precious few places in the world my family’s story — my grandparents’, and mine — would be possible.

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