Manitoba History: Site Review: Images of Our Past: A Celebration of Manitoba’s Peoples
by Gerry Berkowski
Last November the Manitoba Multicultural Resource Centre sponsored a film night at Cinema Main, featuring films about working people. One film, entitled Hold the Ketchup, was billed as a humorous look at the ways in which food is prepared in the homes and restaurants of Canada’s various ethnic groups. Interviews with the men and women who made and consumed their creations also gave insight into such issues as sex roles and assimilation, and raised significant questions about the preservation of practices and values at the foundation of Canada’s multicultural heritage.
The evening of films was part of Images of Our Past, a project begun in 1986 to “join community-based organizations and professional advisors in a common effort to preserve and tell the story of how ethnocultural groups have shaped Manitoba’s settlement patterns, economy, politics and social life.” The project was coordinated by a steering committee of the MMRC which held working meetings, raised funds, and organized workshops designed to “encourage and assist ethnocultural communities in ongoing efforts to preserve their historical resources and to share these with researchers, archives, museums and the general public.” (p. 44) The result was a series of educational public events, the most ambitious of which was an exhibit still travelling the province, entitled Images of Our Past: A Celebration of Manitoba’s Peoples.
Images of Our Past strives to “create a composite picture of the peoples of Manitoba and bring into relief the ethnic elements which make up this province.” This would “enable individuals and groups to share and compare their respective experiences and become more aware that their common heritage is indeed multicultural.” (p. 3)
The exhibit consists of artifacts, costumes, archival documents, and photographs displayed on story boards, on plinths, and in dioramas. All of this material is arranged thematically and divided into six major areas. The introduction describes the impact of early settlement on aboriginal peoples and provides a chronological description of migration and settlement from La Verendrye to the ‘White Paper’ and beyond. The second section, entitled By Their Works Shall You Know Them, covers the role of various groups in the Manitoba economy in the Rural and Northern Mosaic, and the Urban Mosaic. Inequality and the Practice of Freedom shows how immigrants and aboriginal people suffered after being lured to Manitoba by the “magnets” of free lands and free homesteads. Their struggle for real freedom “not only helped to give substance to the principles of British democracy, but added their own vision of human rights, equality and respect for diversity which has become the ethical dimension of multiculturalism.” (p. 19) Expression and Perpetuation of Group Identity discusses the role of ethnic organizations, community, and institutions in preserving ways of life and culture within a dominant anglo-saxon assimilationist culture. The fifth section describes changes to activities, objects, customs, and rituals as people realistically adapt to the needs of living in a new social and political environment. Finally, the epilogue reminds us of the place of ethnicity in history, with reference to third world immigration to Canada in recent decades. These people are searching for the same “equality of opportunity, guarantees of human rights and access to power as other minorities did a generation or two back, nothing more and nothing less.” (p. 43)
Images of Our Past does not avoid discussions of controversial issues in its interpretation of the multicultural experience. “Immigrant hardships, inequality and discrimination,” writes Steve Prystupa, the curator, “are examined in the presentation along with the ways in which these problems were addressed.” (p. 3) In the Vertical Mosaic, for example, class differences are depicted by juxtaposing photographs of poor Ukrainian and wealthy English families. This is not intended and should not be viewed as a stereotype. Other panels describe the experiences of people of various social and economic back-grounds who, as John Bodnar writes of urban American immigrants, were not victims of circumstance, or manipulated by class and culture. They were “active participants in an historical drama.”  There were many different social and economic and political circumstances affecting individuals. Through their choices and responses, they “injected their own distinctive elements into the evolving mosaic.” (p. 5) The kaleidoscope is an appropriate symbol with which to capture the interaction between cultural practice and the social, economic and political forces in Manitoba’s history.
The references to contemporary immigration, and attempts to relate past experiences to those of the present bring to mind historian Paul Thompson’s argument that history should serve a social purpose in everyday life. The production of Images of Our Past was an activity that raised the historical consciousness of participants who gathered objects and historical records from their communities. Many of the items displayed were donated by more than 45 groups who actively participated in its making. Some have recorded oral history interviews, others have begun writing their own histories.
The valuable contributions of volunteers who gathered raw material for the exhibit is recognized in the acknowledgments. The exhibit was the “result of an extraordinary amount of voluntary community involvement and cooperation.” (p. 44) However, the organizers also understood that this ambitious project could not have been done without the involvement of professionals and institutions. A committee of historians, curators, and archivists acted as advisors to volunteers. As well, some of the artifacts and photographs which appear in the exhibit come from the collections of The Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature, the Provincial Archives of Manitoba, and the Western Canada Pictorial Index. This partnership between community and institution underscores the fact that heritage preservation and interpretation requires not only commitment, but finances and expertise to cope with the challenging demands of research, planning and development.
Having made a successful debut in Winnipeg at the CN station and the Legislature, Images of Our Past is currently on tour in rural and Northern Manitoba. Like Hold the Ketchup shown on film night, those who see the exhibit will be entertained by a provocative and informative historical display of Manitoba’s multicultural identity. Visitors may even recognize a few friends and relatives in the photographs.
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