In Canadian circles, the subject of immigration likely revolves around newcomers, those from far and wide seeking new opportunity, refuge even, in the Great White North. But in these conversations, are we forgetting our American neighbours, those who choose to call Canada home?
Not entirely. A group of History students at Western has dedicated a year to researching and collecting stories of American immigrants to Canada, collecting accounts ranging from the 1700s to present day. Students enrolled in the Public History MA program have teamed up with the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to develop a virtual gallery on the theme of American immigration to Canada.
“Every year, the (program) does a project with a community partner. I’m from the East Coast, and I spent time chatting with some people out there, and we talked about pursuing a group project with (the museum). They really liked the idea,” explained Michael Dove, who teaches History and is the Acting Director of the MA Program in Public History at Western.
The museum identified the theme of American immigration to Canada as something their collection was lacking, he noted, and the students’ skills in digital and oral history could be of use in creating a virtual exhibit or gallery for the museum. The partnership was a perfect fit.
In the fall term, the program’s 10 students gathered images and wrote text on three main waves of immigrants from the United States, groups identified by the museum as being a priority.
“There were the New England Planters, who between 1760 and 1774 took up the request of Governor Charles Lawrence of Nova Scotia to settle the lands left vacant, following the expulsion of the Acadians; black migrants following the Underground Railroad to Upper Canada/Canada West, between 1840 and 1860; and those who participated in the Gold Rush to British Columbia and the Yukon in the late 1890s,” Dove explained.
The second part of the project, now underway, is meant to paint a more contemporary portrait of the American immigrant to Canada. Students plan to conduct oral history interviews with individuals who came to Canada following the 1960s, focusing on deserters, drifters, draft dodgers from the Vietnam War and members of the LGBTQ community.
“You’re going to get all kinds of stories,” he added, noting students are looking for individuals to interview, regardless of the reason they chose to live in Canada.
“I was on the Underground Railroad group last term, and what I found interesting was how few people who came to Canada on the Underground Railroad actually stayed. About two thirds ended up going back to the United States after the Civil War,” said Kaiti Hannah, one of Dove’s students.
“That’s definitely not the image you get in your head, at least not the image I had in my head, when thinking of the Underground Railroad. I thought you come, you stay. But the circumstances they found here were generally the same, aside from slavery, and once slavery was over, they wanted to go back and find family, friends. The climate was warmer. If all you’ve done in your life is farm cotton or tobacco, you want to go somewhere where you can farm cotton or tobacco – maybe get your own plot of land,” she explained.
The stories are diverse and it’s important to collect them, for Canadian history to reflect the voices of those who came here from the United States, added classmate Rebecca Smithers.
“A lot of people come to Canada looking for a particular experience, or they’re trying to get away from the experience they were having in the States. There’s a grad student that wanted to come to Canada because tuition prices are so much cheaper here – and little things like that, that you don’t think about when you think of big stories of immigration,” Smithers noted.
The plan for the remainder of the project is to carry out interviews, which students will transcribe, and video stitch. When the work is completed, the museum will likely select an intern from the class to go to Halifax and help turn the content into a virtual gallery, Dove said, adding the position will be a paid gig.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for a student to work with a national museum. They often hire from the pool of interns. This project gives students an experience, a leg up,” he noted.
“If anyone would be interested in getting in touch with us, they’re welcome. We’d love to hear everyone’s story.”
For more information and to share your story, visit the MA in Public History website, https://history.uwo.ca/public_history/.