Conference focuses on diverse heritage

May 18, 2006, volume 36, no. 2
By Carol Thorbes

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Lynn Copeland hopes that a conference hosted by Simon Fraser University will increase public support for making Canada's immigrant historical records accessible to anyone near a computer. Like a locked jewel box full of heirlooms, these records often languish on microfilm and other media in the obscurity of museums, libraries and archives, inaccessible to people who live far away.

Copeland, SFU's dean of library services, is the instigator of the Multicultural Canada Digitization Project and the Multicultural Canada Conference: Our Diverse Heritage. The free, public conference from May 31-June 2, is designed to promote the project and develop fundraising strategies for the digitization of hundreds of thousands of immigrant historical records across Canada. The material includes immigrant historical newspapers, such as the Chinese Times, oral histories, photographs, letters and legal documents.

The digitization project is making this material accessible on-line in its original language, using vernacular, English and French search engines. The digitized material is linkable to related websites and interactive, educational tools through the portal, Ultimately, the portal will allow researchers, students and the descendents of immigrants to easily explore immigrant migration, ancestry and cross-cultural information online.

With state-of-the-art digitization equipment at the Burnaby campus, SFU is leading the massive national initiative. The universities of Victoria, Calgary, and Toronto, the Multicultural History Society of Ontario (MHSO) and Vancouver Public Library are key collaborators. Copeland is seeking more.

The Sien Lok Society in Calgary, an association that promotes Chinese heritage, has put up $46,000 of the $100,000 raised so far to mount the digitization project. Collaborators and donors to date hope the upcoming conference at SFU's Morris J. Wosk centre for dialogue will attract more funding. Individual projects cost from $5,000 to $50,000.

Under the guidance of Ian Song, the MHSO Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples is the first completed project and is now searchable online. Song, the digital initiatives coordinator at SFU's library, is digitizing the Chinese Times, an early immigrant newspaper in Vancouver and Alberta.

“Until now libraries and museums have only had electronically searchable indexes of newspapers whose original language is English or French,” notes Copeland. “Without specific dates, names and events, community members, students and researchers of newspapers in other languages have had to spend countless hours combing microfilms.” She says the digitization project will make it easier for the descendents of immigrants who don't speak their original language to research their ancestry in original language newspapers.

Henry Yu, a speaker at the Multicultural Canada Conference, is using  digitized material to mine Canada's Chinese head tax registry for a book about the globalization of Chinese migration. Until now the registry has only been accessible on microfilm. Digitization is enabling Yu and University of British Columbia deputy librarian Peter Ward to piece together a portrait of the 80,000 Chinese immigrants who paid a head tax to enter Canada between 1885 and 1923. They are studying the origin, health and physical attributes of the immigrants.

“The digitization project will make it easier for the descendents of Chinese immigrants to research and prove their eligibility for compensation under an anticipated federal head tax redress program,” says Yu.

An associate professor of history at the UBC, Yu is one of about 30 well-known historians, writers and archivists presenting their work and discussing how digitization will advance it at the conference. For more information and to register, see:

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