Few of us can really imagine what it would be like to land in a brand new country where virtually everything about the culture and the established way of life is new.
A current exhibit at the Red Deer Museum + Art Gallery is focused on bringing some of the experiences of folks who have come to Canada over the past 150 years to life. Newcomers’ unique and shared experiences—across time and cultures—are highlighted in a thoughtful way through oral histories, archival images, original artworks, objects and your participation.
The cross-Canada tour of ‘Canada: Day 1’, an exhibition from the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax opened at the MAG last month and is showing through to mid-August.
“This is actually the first exhibit that Pier 21 has sent out,” explained Kim Verrier, coordinator of visitor experience at the Red Deer Museum + Art Gallery. “When we saw it, the topic and the relevance to now just seemed to scream out that we should get it,” she said, adding the Museum actually booked the exhibit two years ago.
But as mentioned, the relevancy to today is striking and poignant. Through a number of audio and visual means, many stories of newcomers to Canada are told. Striking photos both from the nation’s earliest days and over the subsequent decades also reflect the experiences of immigrants.
“It’s just seems to be so timely in the current conversation,” she said. “What this exhibition is really about is the different emotions and feelings and things that happen when someone arrives in Canada. It’s about that first day experience – what do you encounter? What are the feelings? Why did you leave your home country, and how did you settle?
“What was it like. And of course, not everyone has the most positive story. Most people don’t leave homes that are in good situations – and they all come with a story.
“For many of us, we are multiple generations away from an immigration experience. And when we look at this we think, wow – what was it like?”
Interestingly, there are two local citizens who are featured in the exhibit as well – Monybany Dau and Ethel Suarez. “So we have two locals which Pier 21 was really excited about because not every stop that they have has local people featured in it.”
According to the Pier 21 web site, Dau was born in Atar, Sudan in 1975. During the Second Sudanese Civil War, he volunteered to join the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, and fought as a child soldier in South Sudan. He served until 1986 when he and 600 other child soldiers were sent to Cuba. Cuba supported the South Sudanese independence movement and agreed to support the young soldiers affected by the war.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba suffered economically and could no longer support Dau or the other former child soldiers. Through the United Nations, he applied for refugee status in Canada. He arrived in September 1998 and found work in both Red Deer and Brooks and was able to support his family members in Sudan.
“Monybany currently lives in Red Deer with his wife and two sons, and is working toward a career in business management. He also made a documentary called The Ladder of My Life about his experiences as a child soldier and refugee.” The film will be screened at the MAG on June 20th, starting at 7 p.m.
Suarez was born in Salto, Uruguay in 1944.
In 1973, a military coup forced many people to leave Uruguay because of their political beliefs. Suarez and her husband belonged to a political party that was banned by the new government and they were repeatedly harassed and threatened by the military. “Ethel, her husband and their three children fled to Argentina in 1974 where they lived for the next three years. With the assistance of the United Nations, Ethel and her family came to Canada as refugees in 1977.”
The family settled in Red Deer where Suarez and her husband opened and operated a successful carpentry business. She sold the business five years later after her husband passed away in 1985. Currently, she works as a disability counsellor in Red Deer. She is also involved with C.A.R.E. (Central Alberta Refugee Effort).
Also displayed in the exhibit are items the immigrants interviewed for this project carried in their luggage to Canada, including beans from Italy, instant noodle soups from Hong Kong, family photo albums, jewelry, books and even stuffed animals. Another fascinating part points out how many war brides left their homes in Europe and settled in Canada, too.
“The war brides were the largest group of immigrants to come to Canada at one time,” she said. “So within a short period of time, there was something like 45,000 war brides – the numbers are just astounding. Today, they say there are about more than one million descendants of war brides living in Canada.”
As Lorna Johnson, executive director of the Red Deer Museum + Art Gallery points out, the exhibit offers visitors the chance to see Canada, “With fresh eyes – as newcomers over the past 100 years have experienced it.
“It also offers the opportunity for us to extend hands of welcome to those who have just recently arrived here, and invite them to share their stories.”