Peter Keleghan tells a personal tale of Canadian immigration with new documentary

January 11, 2017

By Martin Knelman, Globe and Mail |

Peter Keleghan, one of Canada’s busier actors, is the creator and narrator of a highly personal documentary called Once an Immigrant, which will have its premiere Thursday on CBC’s documentary series Firsthand.Keleghan – known for his performances in The Newsroom, Slings & Arrows and Street Legal – is our on-screen guide, revealing the saga of how his own family fled Europe and landed in Canada.

Early in the course of the project, Baggage was one of the working titles under consideration. Chatting with me at a Toronto café the other day, along with his collaborator, director Michael McNamara, Keleghan explained what Baggage means. “It’s the stuff immigrants to Canada have to leave behind – what they had been through in their country of origin.”

Such as: racism, sexism, religious persecution, homophobia.

“The lack of all that,” he says, “is what Canada is about.”

Firsthand has replaced a previous CBC series, Doc Zone, which had been a home for general-interest documentaries. Unlike Doc Zone, Firsthand puts the emphasis on point of view and personal perspective. Once an Immigrant is an example of what the series is intended to achieve.
“We are a land of immigrants,” McNamara says. “It’s one of the things that separates us from the rest of the world.”

As the husband of Leah Pinsent, Keleghan has a father-in-law, Gordon Pinsent, who became an immigrant to this country, moving from Newfoundland before it became part of Canada. And Peter’s two children (born in Los Angeles from a previous marriage) were delighted to settle in Canada.

Keleghan describes the film as a cautionary tale. “I loved Meryl Streep’s speech at the Golden Globes,” he says. “We live in an era when Trump – a bigot, racist and misogynist who mocks disabled people – can be elected and become the so-called leader of the free world. And when you look at all the disruption in the rest of the world, you see a swing to the right happening with Brexit and Trump and what’s happening in Europe. It could easily happen here. We have to be very vigilant about protecting Canada’s inclusiveness and progressiveness.”

Suddenly, the unthinkable becomes thinkable. Could there ever be a wall along the world’s longest undefended border preventing immigrants from sneaking into the United States from Canada?

Keleghan’s father, Stanley Krakus, was born in Poland, one of seven children.

“I can’t even imagine some of the horrific stories my father told about the war,” says Keleghan. “He was sent to a forced-labour camp during the Nazi occupation of Poland. After the war, he landed in England, where as a teen he lived with a British family. When he tracked down family members in Poland, they advised him against returning to Poland, because by then it was occupied and controlled by the Soviet Union.”

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