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Who are we as Canadians? Where are we going, as a city, a province, and a Nation? How does our collective history influence those questions today? In the 21st century, these are questions History Professor Henry Yu wants every single Canadian to rethink.
In much of his research and teaching, these questions are pivotal in challenging the long-accepted ways Canadians have thought – and taught about themselves.
“Who we are is a product of the other two,” says Yu. “We are people who live in the bounded border of Canada, tied to places around the world. “We’re still dealing with where we are and when we are, in the creation of a huge, vibrant settler nation on someone else’s land.”
Yu is part of a collaborative effort to re-imagine the history of Vancouver and British Columbia as “Pacific Canada,” a perspective that focuses on how migrants from Asia, Europe and other parts of the Americas engaged with each other and with First Nations peoples historically.
Currently spearheading a multi-year grant from the Federal Community Historical Recognition Program (CHRP) in collaboration with UBC Library, Yu believes historical reconsideration is fundamental to the region’s future.
“I see myself and my students as making history in every sense of the term,” says Yu. “As scholars, as historians, that’s what we do.” People wouldn’t normally expect history professors to be working on 3-D immersion computer games, but that’s one of Yu’s CHRP endeavors: re-creating the world of a 19th century store in rural B.C. as seen through a 15-year-old’s eyes. Yu is also helping oversee the development of Mobile Museum kiosks and a digital archive, all focusing on documenting and preserving the forgotten history of Chinese Canadians.
At the core of this work, and many of Yu’s research interests is the renowned Wallace B. and Madeline H. Chung Collection, whose 25,000 items includes ships logs, head tax certificates, and a wide range of other primary source materials: a vital link between past and present.
Housed in the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre in a special display room as well as the archives in Rare Books and Special Collections, the Chung Collection “is crucial to me as a historian,” Yu says. There would have been no CHRP grant but for the Chung Collection, he adds. “The Chung allows us to make research relevant to everyone. It allows me to say, ‘we’re remaking Canadian history as everyone will understand it’.
The exceptional range of the collection “documents Canada’s great past, and its dark past,” Yu says, particularly the Chinese experience of migration and settlement in B.C. “The problem now is this material isn’t part of history at all, or maybe it’s a sidebar.
“For many of our youth whose parents come from somewhere else, the past and present are a foreign country,” he says. “All they hear is the founding peoples were English and French.”
When his students start gathering and collecting their own family histories – many of them using material from the Chung Collection – they’re doing research on the highest scholarly level. What they find is that “Chinese people have been here for generations, so the past is not a foreign country,” Yu adds. “The past is their Canada too.”
“On a historical level, the history that was made has to be unmade, remade.” In large part, that’s what Yu came back to B.C. to do. Born in Vancouver and drawn home to the province after completing graduate work and teaching in the U.S., Yu says one of the strongest pulls was the opportunity to work with materials from the Chung Collection.
He’s seen its impact again and again as a thousand students – one at a time – light up in the process of discovering their families’ migration stories. “I want to see every one of my students on that journey,” Yu says. “It will change their lives.”
More so than any other class, he gets emails from students about the lasting experience of his oral history course. What do they say? “It was transformative.”
In making a gift to UBC Library of his world-class collection, Yu says, Dr. Wallace Chung “returned something to our collective awareness that wasn’t there and should have been. That’s what a donor can do – push a university in the right direction.”
Perhaps not just a university, but a society as well. Yu sees British Columbia and Canada in the midst of a wrestling with profound questions of identity. “Who are we now? Who are we going to be? We’re entering a future where Vancouver is a half-Asian city. That is actually quite unique. We either build on that or we fail to realize the potential of that.
“It’s important that we deal with this as a civil society in dialogue. The history I’ve talked about is not some sort of shame as Canadians. We need to deal with it, and move on and build together what takes advantage of who we are.”
To learn more about the Chung Collection, visit the Chung Collection website.