Thursday, 24 September 2009

Immigrant Experiences -- Museum Exhibit Musings

One of our staff recently attended a presentation on supporting volunteerism among, and having volunteer programs designed for, people who are new to Canada. While at the presentation she felt it important to point out to the group that it would benefit the discussion if they all had a historical overview of immigration to Lethbridge as well as the opportunity to see how various immigrant groups have been treated in Lethbridge in the past. Studying history (when it’s studied well and not allowed to become mythology where “truth” is never contested) encourages people to see an issue in a broader, more complete context.

As she told me about what she had learned at the presentation it reminded me again of the importance of deciding how to present immigration in the exhibit. Immigration and the growth and change of Lethbridge from 1906-1913 must be in the exhibit but there are many ways I could present it. As statistics? As photographs? As recollections and stories from people living today of their family’s arrival in southern Alberta? The medium chosen is just as important in telling the story as the facts and figure and material presented.

One of the difficulties in telling the complete truth of immigration is that immigrant stories from certain groups from 100 years ago are often missing from our historic (written) record. For a wide variety of reasons, these stories were often not collected in the past. (And I know our Archives, and many other Archives across the province, would like to help change this so if you have or know of such documents contact the Galt Archives.)

So it was a pleasant surprise to find in the newspaper a series of letters to the editor written by L.D. Brower, a recent Black immigrant to southern Alberta. Unfortunately, Mr. Brower found it necessary to write the letters as a way of speaking out against the racism he and others were facing. But his letters are a powerful reminder that during the early part of the 20th century people of all colours, religions, and ethnic backgrounds were moving to Lethbridge, southern Alberta and western Canada and that many “pioneers” do not fit the stereotypical image that many people still hold.

And, the more I read Mr. Brower’s letters, I realize that whatever labels and information I write for the exhibit I can not more clearly and succinctly as he explain the issues of that day and that perhaps using his letters, and others like them if I can find them, would be a good way to present some of the information in the area of the exhibit related to immigration.

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