SFU History's Professor Willeen Keough Engages the Community through Oral History


Professor Willeen Keough, right, taking in the exhibit of New Westminster’s working waterfront.

August 19, 2015

An exciting conversation is happening in New Westminster, due in no small part to SFU History’s professor Willeen Keough and her students.

Keough has been an instrumental player in the (Re) Claiming of the New Westminster Waterfront Project headed up by Peter Hall of SFU’s Urban Studies Program and Department of Geography. The project’s aim is to facilitate conversations about the working waterfront’s history since the 1940s, engaging local residents and workers, students and academics, and various community partners in the story behind the dynamic and evolving relationship between the port and the city. A considerable part of the knowledge emanating from the project, says Keough, has come from oral history fieldwork.

Since its commencement, Keough has served on the project’s steering committee, and has taken on the role of training students and community members in ethical oral history practices.  In addition to offering several community workshops, Keough taught an oral history course, History 461, in the spring of 2014 that brought students of History and Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies (GSWS) together with members of the broader community to create oral histories of local groups. These included Women Transforming Cities; Surrey and New Westminster Pride; and Korean-Canadian business owners in the Fraser Valley. 

Two of the working groups chose the New Westminster Waterfront Project as the focus of their practicum study.  Undergraduate students Colin Osmond, Jane French, Courtney Manlove, Bailey Garden, and Jacqueline Gootee worked with community project members Dean Johnson, Ken Bauder, Oana Capota, and Barry Dykes.  They carried out and transcribed interviews and created full-length documentaries by layering interview clips with music, sound effects, and images from the local archives.  In addition, several history graduate students worked on the project, including Andrea Walisser (interview coordinator extraordinaire), Leigh Smith (technical and software expert), and Liam O’Flaherty (co-author of a book on Local 502 of the Longshoremen’s Union).

In an interview, Keough enthused about the effect of these oral history projects on everyone involved: young students, mature students, community interviewers and narrators, waterfront workers. “It created a profound learning experience,” she observes, and forged a deep, interpersonal, historical connection among participants. The power of humanities disciplines to help individuals and communities understand their own stories and histories should not be underestimated.

Keough points out that her contribution has been just one piece of a much larger effort conducted by SFU colleagues Hall, Pamela Stern (anthropology),  Susan O’Neill (education), Mary-Ellen Kelm (history) and the project’s community partners.

The project resulted in multiple outcomes, including school programs, a museum exhibit, self-guided memory walks and bike tours, and even an historical food festival.  An online archive of nearly 100 recorded oral histories and a comprehensive gallery of digital images have also been created, along with a vast number of YouTube videos based on common themes running through oral narratives.

Clearly, an important conversation has begun in New Westminster about the people’s relationship to the city and port, past and present.  This dialogue will continue and thrive thanks to the passion and engagement of scholars like Keough.


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