provoking thoughts about the presence of our past

Saturday, February 26, 2011

National centre needed to celebrate Pacific immigrants


The federal government recently announced the designation of Pier 21 in Halifax as Canada's National Immigration Museum. We applaud this recognition of the importance of immigrants to the development of Canadian society.

However, we need a national centre -a hub of digital learning -located in Pacific Canada to recognize a history and future for our nation that Pier 21 cannot alone represent. The millions of Canadians who came from China, Japan, India, Pakistan, the Philippines and other parts of Asia did not cross the Atlantic Ocean, and Halifax is not their symbol of arrival.

In addition to Pier 21 in Halifax, we need a complementary immigration museum that would encourage those who came to Canada across the Pacific to feel included in our common history. These people have been ignored for too long in definitions of Canadian identity. The time has arrived to recognize the importance of trans-Pacific migrants in building our society.

Understanding Pacific Canada requires a perspective on our past and future that differs from a mythic history of westward expansion from the Atlantic. Canada was founded in 1867, but by that point there was already a Pacific and an Atlantic component to its past. Some have even argued persuasively that the Chinese had visited B.C. shores as early as the 15th century. The perspectives of Pacific Canada recognize the long process of historical engagement between trans-Atlantic migrants, trans-Pacific migrants, coureurs des bois and aboriginal peoples. If Canadians are to share a common future, we need as a nation to recognize this still largely untold history.

Chinese Canadians who built the CPR spread across Canada, riding the railway in the opposite direction of European migrants. Filipino Canadian nurses who first came to Winnipeg now work in hospitals from Victoria to Halifax. South Asian Canadians who were denied entry a century ago now account, along with migrants from China and the Philippines, for two-thirds of all new immigrants to Canada. And the tens of thousands of Canadians of all backgrounds who go to Asia every year -to teach English, to pursue business and career opportunities, and to foster ever-growing trade ties with Japan, China and Korea -also reflect the aspirations of Pacific Canada.

Indeed, Pacific Canada is not a region -it is an identity that informs how an ever-increasing proportion of our citizens understand Canada's place in the world.

So what should a centre that celebrates Pacific Canada look like? First, it needs to embrace the future -not just the changing face of Canada, but also the latest digital and multimedia technologies that can transform our museums into centres of education and discovery. The 20th-century museum was an imposing monument built around massive collections that were mostly hidden from visitors. A new approach would result in an engaging and powerful user experience at a Pacific Canada Heritage Centre that, in turn, would support existing archival and museum collections. A consortium of libraries, archives, museums and universities can work together so a flagship national entity would use new technologies to tell long-neglected stories and preserve them to ensure long-term access.

As a librarian and a historian, both of us have been devoted to preserving our past so that future Canadians can have a sense of shared identity. Canadians' interest in exploring their roots -through online resources available at organizations such as Library and Archives Canada and, and through popular TV shows such as the recent series Who Do You Think You Are -is exploding. For too long we have neglected and excluded so many peoples from our national sense of identity.

Granted, trans-Pacific immigrants now arrive in a country that is more welcoming, and the sting of discrimination and racism may have diminished. But if we are to build a future together, we need to cherish and celebrate a much broader past.

A Pacific Canada Heritage Centre, located in a city that already attracts visitors from all around Canada and the world, would help build a more complete sense of the Canadian experience and promote an inclusive vision that embraces so many more of our people.

Ingrid Parent is the university librarian at the University of B.C. Henry Yu is a professor of history at UBC and the project lead of Chinese Canadian Stories (

Originally published by the Vancouver Sun.