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Chinese immigration: Railroad exhibit controversy

They risked their lives to help build Canada's railroad in the 1880s. But as soon as the work was done, Canada just wanted them gone. It was the beginning of a difficult history for Chinese immigrants to Canada. They struggled through the head tax, personal attacks and job discrimination. But the Chinese in Canada persevered. And today, Chinese-Canadians are an integral part of Canada's multicultural society, forging their own cultural identities.

Calgary's Glenbow Museum has put together an exhibition celebrating 100 years of the Canadian Pacific Railway. But according to critics, the exhibition doesn't give enough attention to the thousands of Chinese migrants who helped build the railway. The curator says there just weren't a lot of written or visual resources on the topic to be used in a museum exhibit. Historian Patricia Roy, however, says there are many alternative sources that could be used. This CBC Radio report explores both sides of the issue.
• "The Great CPR Exposition" at the Glenbow Museum opened in August 1983. It was financed by the CPR, as well as a $45,000 grant from the federal government. In an Aug. 6, 1983, Globe and Mail article, the director of the museum wouldn't give an actual figure on how much the CPR contributed, but said it was "considerably more than the Ottawa grant."
• The exhibition was curated by archivist Bill McKee.

• Just before the exhibition opened, freelance writer Barry Nelson (who had seen a preview showing) wrote in the Globe and Mail that "anyone expecting to experience the real story of the Canadian Pacific Railway and the settlement of the West will be disappointed." He called it "a sanitized, pre-digested, squeaky-clean, slickly packaged version of history which will delight its corporate sponsors (Canadian Pacific) but which is an offence to the railway workers, western settlers and Indians whose story deserves a more honest rendition."

• The criticisms didn't dampen the enthusiasm that many fans had for this exhibit. In an August 23 Globe and Mail review, writer Robert Sheppard praised the exhibit as "a stunning commemoration of how the railways opened the West a century ago. Judging by its popularity, the CPR exposition is another success for a museum which has had its share of kudos."

• Besides the limited availability of written and visual resources, curator Bill McKee blamed the shortcomings on the fact that there just wasn't enough physical space in the museum to tell the "complete history" of the CPR.
Medium: Radio
Program: Identities
Broadcast Date: Oct. 2, 1983
Guest(s): Bill McKee, Patricia Roy, David Young
Host: Doug McIlraith
Reporter: Michael Rose
Duration: 10:17

Last updated: April 23, 2013

Page consulted on December 6, 2013

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