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What is Canadian identity? And how do the children of immigrants relate to the country they were born in, often thousands of miles from the place their parents and ancestors would call home?

Peter Keleghan is a renowned actor and uber-patriotic first generation Canadian who unabashedly claims that Canada is the greatest country on Earth. His mother, Rita, and father, Stan, immigrants from Ireland and Poland respectively, have more complex relationships to their adoptive homeland, and the homes they left behind. In her heart, Rita never really left Ireland, retaining her strong Irish accent and even her Irish passport. Stan, on the other hand, escaped persecution in Poland long ago and has never looked back.

FROM THE FILM: Peter's mother Rita, an Irish ex-pat, revisits the school she left 80 years ago in her hometown.

As a gift to his mom on her 90th birthday, and in an effort to better understand his family history and his parents’ perspectives, Peter sets off with Rita and his sister Tecky on a trip to Ireland — their first together in over 50 years. Peter and his family have chosen a particularly historic time to visit Ireland — 2016 marks the hundred-year anniversary of the Easter Rising. While in Dublin, Peter discusses Ireland’s often-difficult history and its progressive present in interviews with author and activist Danny Morrison and politician, human rights activist and Joycean scholar David Norris.

Would Canada Even Be Canada Without The Irish?

Peter Keleghan with his mom in a gardenPeter Keleghan and his mom, Rita, enjoy tea with Peadar Toiban

Then it’s off to Rita’s hometown of Navan, where we find that not only does Rita remember Ireland quite well, but Ireland also remembers Rita through parish registers and family members. Famed Navanite and radio and television personality Hector O’hEochagain gives the family a tour of Navan before Peter, Rita and Tecky visit with Rita’s brother, Frank, and his wife, Lil. Many of their siblings did what so many young Irish did before them—emigrate. But not Frank and Lil.

Rita’s strong connection to her homeland is contrasted with Peter’s father Stan’scomplex and tragic relationship to his homeland of Poland, which he fled after surviving the horrors of Nazi occupation. When Peter visits his father, who still lives in the home Peter and Tecky grew up in, they discuss Stan’s struggles in post-war Europe. Separated from his family and enduring racist torment due to his Polish name, he is grateful to eventually land in Montreal with his new wife, Rita. Stan sees Canada as a refuge, a country that provides personal freedom and allows him to live a quiet existence in the countryside of St. Bruno, Quebec. 

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Interwoven throughout his family story, Peter discusses Canadian identity and connections to ‘the homeland’ with a group of friends, all of them children of immigrants from different countries: Hungary, India, Greece, the Netherlands, China and Taiwan. Peter also visits with Luke Murphy and Cam Ngo, both immigrants to Canada raising a first generation Canadian daughter, and a group of new Canadians undergoing a citizenship ceremony on Canada Day.

Drawing on historical footage, Super 8 home videos and intimate interviews, Once An Immigrant traces one family’s transition from post-war immigration to second generation Canadian pride, while exploring the connections between Ireland’s history of emigration waves and Canada’s reputation for welcoming the world.

Once an Immigrant is directed by Michael MCNamara for award-winning Markham Street Films.

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