Nestled row after row in file drawers tucked away in a Victorian house at the University of Toronto, thousands of audiotapes hold the life stories of thousands of immigrants to Canada. Collected during three decades, the oral testimonies of over 60 ethnic groups represent a unique treasure, explaining how Toronto came to be the diverse city it is today. Yet the tapes are deteriorating, and could soon be lost to all who want to understand the roots of Canada’s cultural diversity.
Dora Nipp refuses to let that happen, and is creating an Oral History Museum where the tapes are being converted into digital recordings and utilised in an interactive setting so that immigrants’ experiences can be heard and understood by all. But this is no mere exercise in historical curiosity for Nipp, who believes the recordings offer a unique opportunity to "tell history from the bottom up rather than the top down" and encourage tolerance and cultural appreciation among Toronto’s dozens of immigrant communities.
A Global City
The descendant of Chinese immigrants, Dora Nipp is a human rights lawyer with a master’s degree in ethnic and immigration studies and, since 1998, chief executive officer of the Multicultural History Society of Ontario. She has been selected as a Rolex Associate Laureate for her dedication to preserving the recordings and using them to deepen the sense of community in a truly global city.
Toronto is a city of immigrants like perhaps no other city in the world. Successive waves of newcomers have arrived since the late 1800s. Today more than half of Toronto’s 3 million inhabitants were born outside Canada.
Such diversity can create tension, especially when the official version of Canada’s history focuses on the French and British. The Oral History Museum challenges discrimination by ensuring that each person has what Nipp calls a "right to roots".
"Educators were asking us for resources to help them bridge the gaps among children from different backgrounds," Nipp says. "When you have children who are recent immigrants, how do you introduce their culture to other students in class? The teachers wanted to go beyond stereotypes, but didn’t have the resources."
The ageing tapes provided the answer. Most of the interviews were based on an approach developed by the founder of the Multicultural History Society of Ontario, Professor Robert F. Harney. "He taught us to ask people about day-to-day kinds of things. What was important to them? It’s in their daily experiences that we’ve found the gems," says Nipp.
First the tapes had to be preserved. Transcription was not the answer. "Written transcriptions lose the emphasis and emotions," Nipp explains.
So the Multicultural History Society started converting the 8,000-plus hours of recordings into digital format, a project that will take at least two years. The museum opened to the public in September 2004 and will be fully operational in 2006 or 2007. Under Nipp’s guidance, a team of volunteers and professionals conceived a way for Toronto residents, especially children, to hear the stories and respond to them interactively. This encounter with history is possible thanks to "imagination stations" which the museum staff built, utilising computer software that helps visitors walk in immigrants’ shoes. Asked by the computer to respond to choices the immigrants faced, the software takes museum visitors through a world of recorded sounds where immigrants explain why they made the choices they did. Woven into the encounter are photographs from the History Society’s collection of 84,000 images —including hundreds that Nipp discovered in an immigrant’s lacquered trunk hidden in the cellar of an aunt’s store.
Although still under development, the imagination stations have been given rave reviews by the harshest critics — children. "We help people learn about the past through the experience of those who lived it," Nipp remarks. "And kids are mesmerised by the black-and-white photos."
A Hidden History
The creative use of oral testimonies is just the latest of Dora Nipp’s efforts to make history accessible. She put together a photo exhibition on Chinese women in Canada that has been shown internationally. She has been a consultant for radio and television documentaries about immigrants, including a video about Chinese-Canadian soldiers in the Second World War. "This group of 500 Chinese men volunteered for the war, despite the fact that Canada didn’t want them, and several — including Quan Louie, my great-uncle — gave their lives to ensure a better life for future generations," says Nipp. Indeed, Canada’s 1947 decision to give Chinese-Canadians the right to vote was a result of the wartime sacrifice.
Nipp’s own family history provides ample historical material. On her mother’s side Nipp’s great-grandparents immigrated to Canada, and, on her father’s side, her grandparents, including Willy Nip who arrived in 1881 and worked on the Canadian Pacific Railway, one of thousands of Chinese labourers whose sacrifice made possible Canada’s physical and political unification. An average of four Chinese workers died for every kilometre of track laid through the Rocky Mountains. When construction was finished, the workers were abandoned, left to wander destitute along the railway.
Today most Toronto residents celebrate their city’s diversity. But the situation is not perfect. While incidents of outright bigotry are fewer in number than in the past, Nipp says obstacles still exist, from "glass ceilings for ethno-racial professionals to racial profiling by public institutions".
Nipp’s project will encourage respect and tolerance. "Many say that Canada is an experiment in diversity that works, but what we have today didn’t come easily," she says. "Growing up, I heard inspiring accounts of how Chinese communities faced restrictions and racism, but they resisted, carving out spaces in which they could have a decent life, particularly for their children. The more we celebrate those stories, the better equipped we are to confront discrimination today."
Published in 2004