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Seeking and sharing the intercultural histories of Vancouver; view to the past, guide for the future

November 30, 2012

I recently moved to Fraser Street. Besides being continually surprised that I can afford a place in Vancouver, I am struck by the new “branding” that is taking place along this historic street. For instance, near Fraser and 30th new banners have gone up that claim to showcase the history of the area. These “Leave it to Beaver” type banners of milkmen and schoolchildren show a particular type of history and tell a particular side of a story; one in which the histories of diverse communities and ethnic groups has been sidelined. Narratives of intercultural history do exist, but one has to use the tools of engagement, outreach and research to provide a space for them to be heard.

 My work has been intimately involved with bringing marginalized stories of intercultural engagement to larger audiences. These stories inspire. These stories are optimistic. And these stories provide a lens into the past.

As a historical example, Vancouver in 1907 tells an interesting story.  In 1907, precipitated by anti-Sikh riots in Bellingham that spread to Vancouver a few days later, a gathering of several thousand people at City Hall quickly devolved into a rampage through Vancouver’s Chinatown and Japantown (near present day Oppenheimer Park). The Vancouver Race Riots (as they became known) gave vent to long simmering anti-Asian sentiment stoked by popular media and the government. Afterwards, a young William Mackenzie King (future Prime Minister of Canada) was dispatched to Vancouver from Ottawa to record the aftermath of the riot for a government report.  For me, the most striking aspect of the report are the pictures.  One in particular features a woman holding her child in a doorway framed by broken shop windows, a selection of police officers and bystanders gather, and in the far right corner, a Sikh gentleman smiles into the camera.

What is it about this picture that has always attracted me? For one it speaks to the hidden histories of the past. Photographs like these are locked away in archives and only available to select professionals in their field. But on another level, it points to how our histories have always been intertwined. Multiple communities, classes, and ethnicities have always been impacted by events and policies in Vancouver and have always been in a dialogue with it to adapt and change the nature of the city to better reflect its lived reality. I am fascinated by these stories because they travel decades into the past and bring to light the everyday lives of pioneers and new immigrants who tried to create a sense of community.

These intercultural stories and histories exist but are difficult to find. Many traditional archives have placed a value judgment on what they considered “worth” keeping and culturally “important”. This feeds into issues of “knowledge gatekeepers” and the “colonial archive” and because of this, sometimes one finds incomplete records for photos, documents, or ephemera featuring ethnic communities. But for the very same reason, the process of engagement and outreach is so much more important. It requires meeting community elders, pioneers, or their descendants, making personal connections and gaining their trust to bring silenced, marginalized or neglected stories to a greater audience. In my own work, this has included finding photographs of Vancouver based Bhangra dancers performing at the Montreal Olympics, of hearing about interfaith communities coming together to further the causes of social justice, or hearing first-hand a personal story about South Asians gaining the right to vote.  Many of these stories can only be found through an outreach process fostered through genuine engagement and respect.

Intercultural outreach and community engagement are necessary to better understand the intertwined histories of communities in Vancouver and how these narratives can be used as tools to further develop inclusive citizenship.

These groups interacted with one another on a daily basis and their stories of intercultural dialogue are a valuable part of the narrative of the city and a guide to its future.

Blog written by Naveen Girn ~ Community Engagement Specialist

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