Encouraging Canada’s Cosmopolitan Model

November 7, 2006

What’s in a name? In the case of Canadian lawyer and cultural historian Dora Nipp, an Associate Laureate of the 2004 Rolex Awards, quite a lot.

As a child she was awarded a traditional Chinese given name – “Zong Bian” in its Anglicised spelling – meaning “keeper of the ancestral record”. Nipp is now widely known for her role heading up the Multicultural History Society of Ontario (MHSO), a pioneer in collecting and bringing to ever wider audiences the stories of the many different communities who now call Canada home.

“I don’t think it was intentional on my parents’ part because the name was given to me by a Chinese school teacher who was a friend of the family,” Nipp says. “It is a very classical Chinese name, and Chinese traditionally give their children names that they grow into. The funny thing was I didn’t know any of this until I was studying Chinese at the University of British Columbia and the teachers asked us for a breakdown of what our names meant.”

Rich resources
The MHSO’s core resource is 9,000 hours of audio tape recordings of immigrant memories collected over 30 years; these and the associated mementos, photographs and newspaper clippings are all housed in the Oral History Museum which has developed a variety of displays and activities to highlight the contributions of Canada’s ethnic communities. As the society’s chief executive officer, Nipp is in a real sense the keeper of the ancestral records.

Canada’s Chinese immigrants are a subject of special interest for Nipp, but her work embraces the multicultural mix that is Canada today. Toronto, as Nipp describes it, “is a city of immigrants like perhaps no other city in the world”. More than half its residents were born abroad. The Historical Society’s archives traverse more than 60 communities.

Living history
Bursting with activity, the museum is especially popular with student groups, trainee teachers and immigrant groups. When it opened on 7 October 2004, the museum had two experimental “imagineering stations” at which individuals could put themselves in the shoes of immigrants, and hear them describe the experience of being strangers in a strange land, while viewing the photos and artefacts that went with the story.

Now there are five imagineering stations, but the museum is hard-pressed to keep up with demand. Often, while groups of students are in the museum, others are on walking tours of ethnic neighbourhoods while waiting their turn inside.

Much-needed funding
The Rolex Award won by Dora Nipp in 2004 has given a boost to her work and to that of the museum’s 15 volunteers. “For a small, not-for-profit educational institution and heritage centre,” Nipp says, “the Award has been a treasure beyond compare! It attracted a lot of attention and gave us a lot of international recognition.”

She adds that funders in Canada are encouraging universities to work with community groups. In one such partnership, the MHSO, four universities, major libraries and an ethnocommunity organisation are collaborating in the Multicultural Canada project which will take the MHSO model past the next digital frontier, from a digitised resource to an online resource.

Methods that work
The keynote speaker at the conference held in Vancouver in May-June 2006 launching the Multicultural Canada project was Nick Harney. A senior lecturer in anthropology and sociology at the University of Western Australia, Harney is involved in projects using methodologies developed by MHSO with Australian Aborigines and immigrant communities.

“It became clear during the conference how influential the work of the MHSO had been for others working in the field across Canada,” Dr Harney says. Academics at the University of St Andrews in Scotland and staff in the regional government of Campania in Naples, Italy, have also expressed keen interest in adapting the Historical Society’s activities for their own regions.

Highlighting the ordinary
Harney knows the MHSO well – his father, the University of Toronto’s Professor Robert F. Harney, founded the society in the 1970s. He explains that “issues of immigration and integration” have come to the forefront of popular and political agendas in recent years. In contrast to this debate, Harney says, “Dora and the MHSO have consistently, doggedly and patiently … [been] examining histories and their entanglements with the present through sustained conversation with everyday people and community-based groups.”

Nipp herself explains: “The way in which history has traditionally been taught in Canada is very dry. It is always great people, great places and great events… kids in particular don’t connect with that. By listening to actual stories of people and asking questions like how long has your family been here, it creates a link to the past where they can understand where they are today.”

Building tolerance
Does it work? Does exposure to the personal stories from the past help build more tolerance?

Museum staffer Dr Lillian Petroff describes how she was approached by teachers who said a visit to the museum was followed by an easing up in the bullying of new class members of different backgrounds.

Nipp says she can often see the difference the museum makes “in children’s faces”, in the excitement of discovery about their roots, their neighbourhoods and their communities. “What I always say to the students is that they inherit the legacy that those who came before you have left for you. When you learn that history, you understand that and you realise that it doesn’t matter when you arrived in Canada.”

Phil Dickie

Learn more about Dora Nipp

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