This winter, the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 took to the road. Photographer Naomi Harris, Oral Historian Cassidy Bankson and myself, Oral History Researcher Kirin Brown, travelled from coast to coast in order to gather material for the Museum’s summer exhibit. The exhibit looks at the concept of “cultural landscape” through seven different case studies across Canada. At each destination, we met with many people in order to take photographs, conduct oral histories and collect archival materials for the exhibit. Opening in June of this year, the exhibit will run until September. ( editor's note: exhibit extended until November 18 )
Our first stop in our trans-Canadian travels was Toronto. In Toronto, we decided to focus on the Italian community and the ways that this community has changed over time. While there are many different avenues that we could have taken – architecture, neighbourhoods, religious customs, etc. – we found that many of the individuals with whom we spoke came back to one central theme: the importance of food in the maintenance of family and culture.
As with many immigrant populations, food has come to be infused with meaning and memories for Italian immigrants in Canada and their families. We saw this in the recipes and techniques handed down from one generation to the next, in the backyard gardens and orchards, in the family celebrations and festivities. Food in this case is not only sustenance for the body, but also for the soul.
While in Toronto, we spoke with many fascinating individuals who have made their own mark on the local and national stages. Gianna Patriarca has chosen poetry to explore the relationships between immigrants and host society, between men and women and between Italian-Canadians and other groups. Vincenzo Pietropaolo has instead used photography as his medium, capturing expressive portraits of Italian immigrants and other faces that make up part of the Canadian mosaic. Interviewing Gianna and Vincenzo allowed us to gain new insights into the expression of culture and history through the arts.
While we usually aim to arrange most meetings and interviews in advance, sometimes fate or coincidence has other plans. Our photographer, Naomi Harris, was out for dinner with a friend at a new restaurant on College Street when she noticed an old trunk on the floor beside her table. She asked the owners of the Black Skirt the story behind the trunk and learned that it was brought here by Aggie’s grandfather when he emigrated from Italy. When we went to the restaurant the next day (and enjoyed a superb lunch!), we not only met the two owners, Aggie and Rosa, but also had the chance to interview them about their own perspectives on Toronto’s Italian-Canadian community. Rosa invited us to meet and interview her parents that night. Tommasina and Nicola, as well as their son Francesco, shared many stories about the difficulties adapting to life in Canada, buying winter boots, finding the right ingredients to make cake and other anecdotes. Best of all, Francesco sent us each home with a jar of his mother’s homemade tomato sauce!
Our next stop was Montreal. Here we had chosen to look at the city’s Jewish community and the ways the community has grown and transformed in the past century and a half. In particular, we were interested in the way in which neighbourhoods have served as gathering places for the community.
To this end, we concentrated primarily on the neighbourhoods of the Plateau and Mile End. Both neighbourhoods were once predominantly Jewish, but this makeup has shifted dramatically over the years. We met with a number of individuals who grew up in these areas and have seen the changes first hand. Among others, we spoke with Max Beer, Brandee Berson, Tamara Kramer and Shirley and Nathan Wasser.
Finally, we had the opportunity to interview and photograph Hymie Sckolnick, the owner of Beautys Luncheonette on the corner of Saint-Urbain Street and Mont-Royal Avenue. Hymie and his wife, Freda, opened Beautys as a candy shop in 1942 and he continues to come in to work every day – though as he jokes, he “only works seven days a week now!”
Acadian Peninsula & Moncton
After Montreal, Cassidy returned to Halifax, while Naomi and I continued on to Moncton. That afternoon, we drove up to Caraquet in the Acadian Peninsula. Arriving in Caraquet, we were happy to see that it was one of the few places in Canada with snow! While it was a pleasant surprise for us, the locals told us that it has actually been a fairly dry and warm winter there too.
We were in the Acadian Peninsula to research, of course, the Acadians. More specifically, our team had chosen to look at the relationship that the Acadians had (and have) with the territory, “Acadie.” While it may not appear on any modern-day map, Acadie continues to be a source of pride for its inhabitants. We could not help but admire the Acadian flags we found hanging from many homes and even spotted an ice fishing hut painted with the Acadian flag.
Our first stop was to meet Philippe Basque at the Village historique acadien. The Acadian Village is made up of buildings dating from the Deportation to the early 20th century that have been painstakingly transported to the site. While it was closed for the winter, we still appreciated the chance to see the architectural styles over the years.
Returning to town, we made the lucky discovery that the local French café is Caraquet’s unofficial meeting spot. There, we were introduced to many people by Louise Blanchard, who is highly involved in the Tintamarre festival that takes place in Caraquet every August. Louise even invited us for dinner at her brother’s house to try a local winter delicacy, smelts. We were in for quite a treat that night. Not only were the smelts fantastic, but our hosts, Michel-Vital Blanchard and Michelle Smith, are accomplished artists and musicians. Along with their friends, they began an impromptu jam session after dinner that capped off a truly lovely evening.
After having tasted smelts, we were curious to see how they were caught. One of our contacts, Clarence LeBreton, introduced us to a father and son who fish commercially year-round. Roma and Tomse LeBouthillier live and work on Pokesudie Island in the Baie des Chaleurs. We accompanied them on the back of a snowmobile onto the ice. While it was a clear day and relatively warm (-10°C), we were soon bitterly cold from the fiercely whipping wind. Despite our frigid feet and fingers, we were fascinated to see the ice fishing process (or pêche à éperlan in French). Unlike those who fish for pleasure, there was not an ice hut or a simple hole drilled in the ice. Instead, Roma and Tomse have numerous allotments. At each spot, they determine at the beginning of the season where the fish will likely pass based on their swimming patterns and the tides. Then, they cut a large trough into the ice and install their nets. When we arrived, there was not much to see other than a few sticks poking out of the ice. The men quickly pulled out shovels and dug up the troughs, removing the wooden boards that keep the snow out. They also had to remove any seaweed and sludge that blocked the opening. Then they worked to pull the net that lay under the ice out, repeating the same procedure on the other side. The nets were emptied into large plastic crates, where the fish quickly froze because of the cold. In New Brunswick, smelts are a winter specialty because of this flash freezing process, which means that the fish are incredibly fresh when it is time to cook them. After emptying the nets, the men returned them back into the trough and re-pegged them. The process is repeated at each allotment. After they had collected their catch for the day and we had returned to warm up, Roma explained the difficulties that many who live off the land now face due to changes in the industry. Naomi and I both left with a far greater appreciation for the hard work that goes into fishing commercially.
In addition to fishing, we were interested in other ways that people continue to work in industries directly linked to the land. We met with Jacques Pitre, a taxidermist and tanner who works outside of Caraquet. Jacques described how the industry has changed over the years – for the better, in his eyes. Tanning is a much more technical process than in the past, but it is trapping that has changed the most, becoming much more humane. We also visited Sucrerie Chiasson, where Marc Chiasson explained how the maple syrup industry has modernized. Most commercial operations today use a network of thin blue piping to bring the sap directly from the trees to the barn or storage facility to be boiled down to syrup. This definitely made a change from the image of the rustic cabane à sucre we had in our heads!
Our last stop in the Acadian Peninsula was in Bathurst, where we met with Rémi Guitard. Rémi is one of the last men in New Brunswick to log using horses rather than a snowmobile. We tried to do a shoot with him and his horses in a field, but there was such strong wind that Naomi’s lights were blown over several times. We temporarily retreated to his cabin for a hearty lunch of chicken stew with Rémi’s friends. Each described his love for the land and his connection to it, whether through logging, mining or fishing. After lunch, we headed to the woods in the hopes of escaping the wind. There, Rémi and the horses demonstrated how they manage to log enough wood to make a profit, without damaging the forest. Later, Rémi explained that he uses the horses because it’s much more environmentally friendly, cheaper and actually better for the forest.
On our way back, we stopped in Moncton for the evening. I had the chance to meet with Maurice Basque, a well-known academic at the Université de Moncton, who gave me yet another interesting perspective on the cultural landscape of the Acadians. For Maurice, it is language that really sets the community apart. After an invigorating discussion, it was time to return to Halifax for a few days.
Returning to Halifax was a welcome relief (a chance to have clean laundry!) but we continued to work at breakneck speed. The case study in Halifax focuses on the Lebanese community and kinship relationships. Immigration to Canada from Lebanon has typically been chain migration, with one family member coming over and then sponsoring his or her relatives over the years, until finally the whole family is together again in Canada. In some truly remarkable cases, entire villages from Lebanon have regrouped in Canadian cities.
Earlier in the month, I had the chance to interview Bassam Nahas. Bassam came to Halifax with his family and they developed an impressive business empire in the fifty-odd years since their arrival. Today, Bassam continues to work while also devoting substantial time to a variety of charitable causes. He explained to me that travelling and migration are in the Lebanese blood and that it was quite normal for families to find themselves in different corners of the globe. Despite this, he continues to make Halifax his home.
During our time in Halifax, Naomi and I took photos of Cesar Saleh’s games night. The men meet every Friday to play backgammon and other games together. The next morning, we had a shoot at the Our Lady of Lebanon church in Halifax’s north end. Cassidy and Naomi also attended a prayer session. All the women in the Salah family meet each day during the month of May, which in the Catholic faith is considered the month of the Virgin Mary. Finally, Cassidy and Naomi met and photographed the Metlege family residing on Houda Court. The road is named after the family matriarch, Houda, and nearly all the family members live on the street and come together every Sunday for a meal. One of the residents, Lena Metlege Diab, the President of the Canadian Lebanon Society and a local lawyer, later agreed to speak with Cassidy about the family history.
After these shoots, Naomi and I packed up and were back on the road, this time heading for British Columbia.
Castlegar, Grand Forks, & Nelson
Our trip to British Columbia got off to an inauspicious start. Our early morning flight was delayed by snowfall in Halifax (which was especially unlucky, since Halifax has had barely any snow this winter), which meant that we nearly missed our connection in Toronto and were exhausted when we finally arrived in the town of Castlegar in southeastern British Columbia. Our spirits lifted once we saw the beauty of the region and we were better off still when we met with Netta Zeberoff, the Curator at the Doukhobor Discovery Centre. She and other members of the community took us to the Brilliant Cultural Centre and to see Peter Lordly Verigin’s tomb.
We were in Castlegar to develop a case study on the Doukhobors. The Doukhobors are a group of Christian pacifists who fled Russia in the 19th century and came to Canada with the help of Leo Tolstoy and the Quakers. The Doukhobors held land in common and lived and farmed communally. While many originally settled in the Prairies, they were forced to leave their land by the government. The Doukhobors then settled in the British Columbia interior. While no Doukhobors live communally today, we were interested in exploring what aspects of communalism and community involvement endure today, seen through the various committees of which individuals are members.
Once we’d semi-recovered from our jet lag, we set out the next morning to see a few of the committees in action. The Cultural Interpretive Society (CIS) was established in order to preserve the traditional handicrafts of the Doukhobors. Today, the CIS has expanded its role to include a multitude of charitable programs and initiatives. I had the opportunity to speak with Paullette Markin, who told me of the importance of this work and the way in which it brings the community together. Downstairs, Naomi was photographing the USCC Kootenay Men’s Group. This group works together to make a variety of wooden handicrafts, such as ladles and benches. On the day we were there, the men were preparing fine wooden caskets by hand.
The next day, we unfortunately witnessed one of the caskets in use as the community gathered to mourn the passing of Mike Potapoff. While the occasion was sombre, the service itself was beautiful to observe. The men and women sit on opposite sides of the hall with the Doukhobor symbols of bread, salt and water in the centre. Conducted primarily in Russian, the service consists of a series of psalms and hymns that are sung by everyone present. After the service, the community gathered at the cemetery in Ootischenia to bid a final farewell to Mike. Then everyone returned to the Cultural Centre to have lunch together and sing more songs. As with all Doukhobor meals, the lunch was vegetarian and consisted of the specialties of borscht (a vegetable soup made of cabbage, beets, potatoes, tomatoes and cream) and lapsha (rich egg noodles cooked in butter).
That evening, we travelled to Grand Forks, another town with a strong Doukhobor presence. Our welcoming host and tour guide, J.J. Verigin, showed us some of the sites and took us to meet Paul and Lorraine Seminoff. The Seminoffs’ home and garden became a local tourist attraction years ago by chance. With a large acreage, the couple began by placing an antique hand pump in their garden and gradually added to their collection. Over the years, tourists began to come to see the garden and to purchase Paul’s wooden handicrafts. While they no longer open the garden to the public, we were delighted to see Paul’s woodworking and Lorraine’s quilts and to hear their life stories.
After leaving the Seminoffs, we were taken to see an old Doukhobor schoolhouse that has since become the Boundary Museum. Next we went to the Pride of the Valley Flour Mill, which is maintained by the Doukhobor Milling Heritage Society. Then we visited the Hardy Mountain Doukhobor Village Historic Site, currently undergoing major restoration work. We had the chance to meet a member of the Makortoff family who lived in the house communally after she was married and continues to live next door. It was incredible to think of how many people resided in such close quarters. That night, we went to the local talent night. It was definitely a show like no other we’d ever seen! We were treated to many jokes and numerous groups singing in Russian. While we couldn’t understand the words, we definitely appreciated their fine voices. The next morning we joined the community for their Sunday prayer service and volunteer recognition event.
When we returned to Castlegar, we met with the youth council and choir. I interviewed sisters Kalina and Tasha Repin about their experiences growing up in Castlegar and their thoughts on cultural preservation. Naomi and I were both sad that we could not be there in May for the annual Youth Festival which attracts visitors from across Canada.
We spent several days in Nelson, where we were able to meet up with our friend Netta again and talk more about her personal and professional experiences at the Doukhobor Discovery Centre. The Discovery Centre is a recreated communal village that gives visitors the opportunity to see how Doukhobors lived together. I particularly enjoyed the basinet that hung from the parents’ bedroom ceiling, allowing them to rock a crying baby to sleep without having to get out of bed. We also saw archival images and other artifacts from Doukhobor history. We were surprised to hear the difficulties that Netta has in finding such artifacts. In the past, many Doukhobors strove to cleanse themselves by burning all their possessions every year and sometimes even their houses. For this reason, many historic objects have been lost to the flames, making those that remain all the more precious.
Our final stop in the BC interior was to see the making of lapsha. The women of the Castlegar lapsha committee meet once a month to make the ubiquitous egg noodles from scratch. When we arrived, they had just begun to put the dough into the electric mixer. Lapsha is made of eggs, flour, water and a bit of salt. After the dough is mixed, it is run through a series of hand-cranked machines. Each lady has her own set task in the process and it runs like clockwork. The first lady cuts the dough into chunks. The next runs it through a machine to flatten it and then it is passed to another lady who flattens it further. Next, it is lightly grilled on a hot surface. At this point, the dough tastes a bit like a tortilla and as one lady told me, serves as a good energy source for hiking. Next, the flattened pieces are run through a slicer to form noodles and then baked. Finally, they are laid out to cool before being packaged in one pound bags. In total, the ladies make ninety pounds of lapsha every month, which are sold to members of the community. Afterwards, the ladies reward themselves with a fine lunch, including (of course!) some of the freshly-made lapsha. To prepare it, the lapsha is boiled with butter, making a rich and surprisingly sweet mixture.
All too soon it was time to leave the Kootenay region for Vancouver. We knew we were in for a busy week because we were doing not one, but two case studies in the city. My colleague, Cassidy, decided to take the lead on the Chinese case study, so I was in charge of the Sikh case study.
Vancouver and the surrounding cities are home to an extremely large Sikh population originally from the Punjab region in India and Pakistan. Many of the early arrivals were single men who came to Canada to work and then later returned with their wives and family. Today, the Sikh population - and South Asian population more broadly - is primarily concentrated in Surrey. The team decided to focus on sports and recreation for this case study.
Our first stop was to visit Manu Singh, a high school teacher who is also an avid cricket player. When she completed a cross-Canada road trip last summer, Naomi photographed Manu and his friends playing cricket in Vancouver’s Stanley Park. We returned to interview Manu about cricket and his immigration experiences.
In addition to cricket, we hoped to look at the sport of kabbadi. Kabbadi originated in Punjab and could be described as a hybrid of tag, wrestling and whistling. Unfortunately it was the wrong season for kabbadi so we instead turned our attention to wrestling. We met with Arjan Bhullar and his father, Avtar, at their cranberry farm and wrestling gym in Richmond. Avtar competed on the wrestling circuit in India, which inspired Arjan to follow in his footsteps. Arjan recently qualified for the London Olympics as part of Team Canada, the first Indo-Canadian to compete in freestyle wrestling. We will be cheering for him this August!
One of my favourite shoots took place on Vancouver’s Spanish Banks beach. It took several false tries before we finally got a sunny day (Vancouver lives up to its rainy reputation). Six members of the Sikh Motorcycle Club joined us, along with two of their motorcycles and it made for an extremely striking photograph. I was especially thrilled to meet Avtar Singh Dhillon, who was responsible for having the British Columbia laws changed to permit Sikhs to ride motorcycles without helmets, as I had studied the case during my undergraduate degree. Later, the members explained how the Club was formed and the types of charitable work its members do in the community.
Naomi and I were also introduced to the world of bhangra while in Vancouver. Bhangra is a style of dance and music that originated in Punjab and has since been exported throughout the world. We photographed two different groups, the Little Stars (young boys) and the PANJ troupe (university-age young women). Both groups incorporate aspects of traditional dance with more modern music and moves to create a lively and incredibly athletic performance. The costumes were also breathtakingly gorgeous, with vibrant colours and rich fabrics. Later, I spoke with Sukhi Ghuman who is involved in the Vancouver International Bhangra Competition, which is a large scale celebration of bhangra that takes place every year. Sukhi helped explain the meaning and the history behind this type of dance.
Our other case study in Vancouver looked at advocacy, affirmation and change in the Chinese community. For this case study, Cassidy met with Chinese-Canadians who have been made themselves heard locally and nationally using a variety of methods. These individuals worked hard to fight against barriers in their way, changing not only their own communities but also the city and country more broadly.
Through discussions with local historian Larry Wong, we were introduced to a number of individuals who are known within the community. Veteran Frank Wong volunteered to fight for Canada during the Second World War with the hopes that he would earn the right to vote after the war. Master tailor William Wong went to university to study engineering. The professional association did not recognize Chinese-Canadians in the 1940s at the time of his graduation, so he had no choice but to continue in the family business as a tailor. Modernize Tailors is celebrating its 99th year as a business and William is proud of his work as a master tailor.
William Wong and Sid Tan helped lead us to Gim Wong, who has actively fought for justice for Chinese-Canadians. Born in Canada, Gim served in the Air Force during the Second World War, though only after he had received multiple rejections from recruitment officers. After the war, he dedicated his life to his passion of racing, repairing, customizing and building motorcycles and cars. At the age of 83, Gim decided to ride his motorcycle across Canada to campaign for an official apology for the head tax imposed on Chinese immigrants. He shared his stories with Cassidy and participated in a photo session with Naomi and myself at the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Gardens.
We also photographed and interviewed Eileen Lao, George Huang and their daughter, Ivy, who emigrated from China five years ago. Eileen Lao has made significant efforts to make Canada her home. She is the Public Affairs Manager at the immigration settlement agency, S.U.C.C.E.S.S., and is on the board of directors at the Barkerville Heritage Trust where she has actively created bridges between Canadian and Chinese heritage. Cassidy also interviewed Shirley Chan, a community organizer and activist. Shirley and her mother helped to save the Vancouver neighbourhood of Strathcona (the residential section of Chinatown) from demolition. She also met with Robert Sung, a chef who offers culinary tours of Chinatown, who spoke about the challenges around claiming a Chinese identity through his upbringing in Vancouver.
Before leaving Vancouver, Cassidy also had the chance to speak with community leaders Kelly and Maggie Ip. Both came to Canada from Hong Kong as international students in the 1960s and quickly became enamoured with Canada. For a time, Kelly was the Regional Manager of Citizenship Court for the Pacific Region. During this period, he implemented the new Citizenship Act of 1977 and expanded citizenship services in BC and the Yukon Territory. Maggie was instrumental in founding the settlement agency S.U.C.C.E.S.S. and was the organization’s first chairperson in 1973. She served as a Vancouver City Councillor for three years from 1993 to 1996. Both Kelly and Maggie are also active volunteers in the community.
After Vancouver, Naomi and I went to Calgary while Cassidy continued on to Montreal for a conference and to conduct further interviews. In Calgary, we were hoping to increase the diversity of our oral history collection and to speak with individuals who had travelled to Canada as refugees. With the help of Sultana Assar and Adaw Wek at the Margaret Chisholm Resettlement Centre, we were able to meet with three different families that now call Calgary home. It was a privilege to meet with the Koodea-Bakar, Otong and Kon families!
Toronto Part II
After leaving Calgary, Naomi and I returned to Toronto to tie up the last few loose ends of the project. Naomi was able to photograph Aggie Decina and Rosa Gallé in their College Street restaurant, Black Skirt. Later, we were invited to celebrate Rosa’s father’s 82nd birthday in style. Knowing that we desperately wanted to be there for the yearly peperonata (red pepper roast) held in the fall, the family decided to recreate the experience by hosting the dinner in the garage, complete with a roaring wood fire. After we took many photographs, we were treated to one of the best meals we’d had in the entire trip and left stuffed to the brim.
I also had the chance to meet with Maria Coletta McLean and her cousin, Nancy Kindy, while in Toronto. While she was born in Canada, Maria has written and contributed to a number of books about Italian-Canadians. Nancy as well had many great stories to share, my favourite being about how her mother used to make traditional Italian dishes out of the game meat her father hunted. Moose meatballs – such a wonderful example of the melding between cultures! We also photographed Maria’s daughter, Kathryn, who makes pasta by hand.
Our last stop of the trip was to visit Noelle Munaretto and her grandmother, Gina Grando. Gina has taught Noelle how to make pasta from scratch and has inspired in her a strong love for food. As Noelle explained, food and family are inextricably linked for her. It was great to see how these traditions have been passed down from generation to generation.
During the two months that we were on the road, we were lucky to meet with dozens of fascinating individuals. Each of these individuals has preserved his or her own heritage while adapting it to the modern period. In this way, the cultural landscape of Canada has been transformed over the years as groups and individuals make decisions (conscious or not) about what aspects of their culture and heritage they choose to keep and what aspects fall by the wayside. Taken together, these histories have shaped our country and culture.
We would like to extend our heartfelt appreciation to everyone who participated in this project! The hospitality that we encountered in our travels was truly astounding.