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Notes from the Field: An Oral History Odyssey

As part of the re-development of our permanent exhibits, the oral history team is undertaking field research trips across Canada to conduct interviews with immigrants, immigration support workers and volunteers, as well as second generation Canadians. My fall research trip brought me to Montreal, my hometown, to conduct oral history interviews with 10 participants over the course of four days – a slightly daunting task. Even though I had worked at the Museum almost a year, this was my first Museum research trip and I was anxious to make sure it went smoothly. For this trip, I travelled with a professional videographer and six suitcases of filming equipment in tow. It was a great experience and only served to reinforce my love of fieldwork-based research. I thought it might be nice to share a few highlights:

My first interviewees were Roma and Vida, sisters from Lithuania. They were born in a displaced persons camp in Germany after the Second World War and lived there for a few years before coming to Canada. They were toddlers at the time but remember their parents discussing the experience with friends. Roma and Vida have also been incredibly involved with the Lithuanian community in Montreal, especially with St. Casimir's Parish, named after the patron saint of Lithuania. The sisters are incredibly close and it was really beautiful to watch them interact and negotiate their family memories together.

Chloe donated a written story to our Story Collection and when I read through it, I thought she would make an interesting oral history participant. During our pre-interview, Chloe mentioned that her husband Benjamin might be interested in being interviewed as well, and that he had a much easier time adapting to life in Canada. Chloe came from France in 2011 as an intern and was quickly offered a permanent position at the fashion label where she was working. While Benjamin quickly embraced Canadian culture, Chloe felt the sting of loneliness and homesickness during her first year here. Last September, they were married and recently bought their first home in Montreal.

Rosalia also donated a story to our Story Collection and I was very eager to interview her. You see… Rosalia is a special case – she came to Canada with polio. Her father believed that Canada could offer her the medical help she needed; medical attention that she likely couldn’t receive in Italy in the 1950s. After arriving in Montreal, Rosalia did something else that makes her story special, she went to French school. At that time, most Italian immigrants went to English school so Rosalia’s experiences in French school would have been quite different from most. At the end of her interview, she talked about how grateful she was for the opportunity to share her story with others and that she wanted to dedicate her interview to the memory of her now-deceased father.

When another participant had to cancel due to illness, Julija and her daughter Joanna graciously agreed to be interviewed at the last minute. Julija fled Lithuania to escape the incoming Soviet army and lived in liberated concentration camps until coming to Canada in 1949. Joanna is a second generation Canadian who has been very active with Montreal’s Lithuanian community. Julija is a small, shy woman but the strength she showed in fleeing Lithuania and surviving as a displaced person until she could come to Canada is apparent in her story. She is a remarkable woman.

When I knew I would be heading to Montreal for this research trip I decided to contact a family friend who works with a refugee support group. AGIR (Action LGBTQ avec les immigrantEs et réfugiéEs/Action LGBTQ with immigrants and refugees) is a not-for-profit group dedicated to assisting and supporting LGBTQ refugees in Montreal as they navigate everything from claiming asylum, to finding a place to live. She was thrilled that we were interested in talking with members of the LGBTQ community and put me in touch with a few people who are involved in various ways with AGIR. These interviews were some of the most powerful and profound that I have conducted (and I’ve been doing this for seven years!) and they will stay with me for a long time. They also reinforced the idea that sharing personal testimony with the larger Canadian public can help foster empathy, compassion and understanding within our communities.

I am grateful to our participants, and am indebted to them for sharing their stories and experiences with me. The oral history team will be heading out again to conduct more interviews this winter and spring so if you or anyone you know is interested in taking part, please get in touch! You can email me at lsanchini@pier21.ca.