Secret unhappy ending to story told in uplifting Oscar-winning film is revealed in Canadian court battle (2024)

The galvanizing story of Bryon Widner and Julie Miller renouncing racial hate and removing facial tattoos was told as a redemptive tale — but it didn't end well

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Adrian Humphreys

Published Jul 03, 2024Last updated 6days ago6 minute read

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Secret unhappy ending to story told in uplifting Oscar-winning film is revealed in Canadian court battle (1)

An American woman who fled to Canada fearing her former husband — a man widely acclaimed for his vivid transformation away from violent white supremacist groups through his agonizing removal of facial tattoos — has been denied refugee protection after an eight-year battle.

Julie Miller fled to Canada in 2016 and made a refugee claim that accused her former husband, Bryon Widner, of domestic violence, which is a secret, shock upending of the couple’s galvanizing personal story that has been told and retold as an uplifting redemptive tale in articles, TV, and an Oscar-winning film.

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Secret unhappy ending to story told in uplifting Oscar-winning film is revealed in Canadian court battle (2)

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“Some of it is heartbreaking to look back at,” Miller said in an interview with National Post. “It’s been devastating. Honestly, it’s embarrassing.”

Widner and Miller were once both involved in white supremacist groups in the United States but later became a powerful story of denouncing racial hate when they broke from the movement and its ideology, with the help of a Black anti-racism activist.

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Widner was described as a founder and enforcer of a white-power skinhead gang that gained notoriety while Miller was a member of a different group and active on a notorious web forum. The two met in 2005 at a white power music festival in Kentucky and married a year later.

As they started a family, with Miller’s previous children and another child the couple had together, they had a change of heart, graphicly symbolized in Widner’s physical transformation through more than a year of painful treatments to remove racist tattoos on his face, neck, chest and hands.

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In 2011, their tale was told in a documentary called Erasing Hate, and spawned two films, one that won an Academy Award in 2018 for best short film and a longer feature later that year, both called Skin.

As wide acclaim for their story rolled in, their supposedly happy ending chronicled in public retellings was privately incomplete; starkly so.

Secret unhappy ending to story told in uplifting Oscar-winning film is revealed in Canadian court battle (6)

As first reported by National Post in 2022, records entered in Federal Court in Canada show Widner was arrested a year after the release of the first documentary for allegedly assaulting Miller. Charges were dropped after he spent four days in jail but, Miller claimed in court, his abuse continued.

Their relationship ended in 2014 — four years before the films were released — and she obtained a court order for Widner not to contact her. She and the children moved often, she said: Arizona, Tennessee, New Mexico and Michigan, but she said he always managed to find her.

In 2016, an Arizona court granted Widner temporary access to their shared son, who was nine at the time. Two days later, Miller left Arizona and crossed into Canada with the children.

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An arrest warrant was issued in the United States against Miller for child abduction; the child in question being the couple’s mutual son and the abduction being moving to Canada to thwart the Arizona court order.

“We arrived naive and broken and we’re in Canada now and this is home,” Miller said this week. Her new home offered security and something else, she said: a clean start.

“The thing is, for the past, well, I guess since 2006, when I was with Bryon, I’ve lived his story. My story started when I crossed the border. I hadn’t truly lived my life or my story until we got here.”

Miller said even her start in the neo-Nazi worldview was pushed on her by her father, then boyfriends, and her husband.

We arrived naive and broken

“Honestly, my heart was never in it,” she said. “The decision to be a certain way came from every male in my life. It coincided with abuse — sexual, physical, emotional, financial.

“I’m no longer that vulnerable person.

“I realized it was brainwashing, it was like a cult. It was people mimicking each other. When I saw it for what it really was, it felt like this weight was off my shoulders, like my eyes were opened.

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“This is the best place to be, the safest place to be,” Miller said of her life in Canada. “And I’m my best form of myself because I’m me. There’s nobody influencing who I am and the decisions I make.

“We found a community that supports us and that loves us…. This is what we’ve known for eight years.”(She did not want her location published.)

Her daughter, Isabella, now 22, said she watched while her mother worked to keep them safe.

“She’s protecting me and my brother. And as one of the children that she was protecting, it is so hurtful and so sad to hear what the judges and what the people making these big decisions for us were saying about her,” Isabella said.

“I witnessed all of it and she’s done nothing but show me and my brother bravery and love and just try to show us what safety really looks like, and she’s done an amazing job.”

In the family’s refugee claim, Miller said she feared her husband and a wide network of white supremacists angry with her for rejecting their movement and hurting their cause with the couple’s extraordinarily public story.

Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) at first granted Miller and her children refugee protection, accepting that she fled an abusive relationship and suffered a failure of the state to protect her.

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It was a rare case in Canada of accepting American citizens as refugees and Ottawa appealed the decision.

Secret unhappy ending to story told in uplifting Oscar-winning film is revealed in Canadian court battle (7)

The Federal Court ruled in 2022 that the IRB had conflated “perfect state protection with adequate state protection,” meaning that while there were flaws in protecting Miller and her children in the United States, there still is a system trying to keep her safe. Her refugee status was overturned that year, and a new hearing was ordered.

The second refugee hearing came to a different conclusion than the first one.

This time, Miller was found to be ineligible for refugee protection under the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which blocks refugee status for those who have committed a serious non-political crime, in her case, abduction by fleeing with her son she had with Widner.

While the IRB accepted Miller was a victim of domestic violence, the evidence did not establish that Widner physically abused their child, nor showed a risk of imminent harm. Imminent harm is a legal threshold for a parental abduction defence.

That decision was appealed by Miller and it returned to the Federal Court.

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In a decision released Friday, Justice Richard Southcott dismissed her appeal, leaving Miller and her children without refugee protection.

After eight years in Canada, Miller and two children now face possible deportation back to the United States.

“The minute that we heard the news we went from tears to survival mode, it’s back to survival mode,” she said. “What can I do to best help the children?

“I find it soul destroying,” Miller said. She said she intends to keep fighting to remain in Canada.

Widner could not be reached for comment prior to deadline.

In a statement to National Post in 2022 on the issue of Miller’s claims Widner said: “She claims what she claims. The facts of the matter are, she kidnapped my son and ran to Canada after she lost custody in two states.”

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