Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia releases its new publication Looking Back, Moving Forward after its AGM on Nov. 16.
The Nov. 16 annual general meeting of the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia (JMABC) is the culmination of the museum’s 50th anniversary year of celebrations. The special occasion will not only feature Dr. Morton Weinfeld, Chair in Ethnic Canadian Studies at McGill University and author of numerous books on Canadian Jewry, but also the release of the new JMABC publication Looking Back, Moving Forward: 160 Years of Jewish Life in BC.
Taking place at Congregation Beth Israel, the 6 p.m. AGM will be followed by a reception at 7 p.m. and the keynote address. Weinfeld’s most recent publication is a revised and updated version of his book Like Everybody Else but Different: The Paradoxical Success of Canadian Jewry. His virtual presentation will highlight the unveiling of the JMABC’s Looking Back, Moving Forward.
Local historian Cyril Leonoff, who passed away in 2016, established what has become the JMABC with a group of volunteers in 1970. In his research on the B.C. Jewish community, he combed ship manifests and discovered that the first Jews to arrive in the province came to participate in the Gold Rush, in 1858.
The museum’s new book is a testament to the variety and tenacity of Jewish life all over British Columbia. The publication comprises interviews, archival research and community contributions from more than 200 B.C. Jewish community members and it includes more than 400 photos.
Organized into four sections, the book begins with a collection of essays on the history of Jewish life in various regions of the province. This section is followed by short descriptions of historic, modern and new Jewish agencies and organizations that serve(d) the social, cultural, political and religious interests of the Jewish community. Short biographies of notable B.C. Jewish figures from all areas of public and communal life make up the third part of the book. And, finally, a family-sponsored section gives some personal descriptions of a variety of families within the community.
A central mission of the JMABC is to raise awareness of the importance of everyday artifacts to the overall picture of Jewish history in British Columbia. Photos of a family barbecue or a trip to the beach, flyers, letters and other such memorabilia personalize history. Over the years, the museum has created exhibits, films, books and other research material, making its archives as accessible to the public as possible.
The JMABC is hoping to ride the wave of enthusiasm and support from the past year of 50th anniversary activities, as it continues its role as both keepers and disseminators of history within the community and as ambassadors of the Jewish community to broader B.C. society.
Copies of Looking Back, Moving Forward: 160 Years of Jewish Life in BC are now on sale through the JMABC website at a 10% discounted price up until Nov. 16. After the AGM, the price will increase to $50 in general and to $100 for the limited edition hardcover version.
A still from the documentary Crackin’ Out: The Ronnie Tessler Rodeo Collection, showing photographer Ronnie Tessler. The documentary was directed by Sarah Genge and produced by the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia.
The Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia is currently hosting Crackin’ Out, an online exhibit of photographs of rural Western Canadian rodeo from 1976 to 1980 by Ronnie Tessler, along with a short documentary by director Sarah Genge. In rodeo, the term “crackin’ out” means “the beginning of the new season, breaking out of the chute, or even breaking out new chaps.”
“These explosive words epitomize for me the spirit of rodeo and the cowboy way of life,” Tessler explained.
The idea to shoot the images began as a “fun photo expedition” to Williams Lake Rodeo in 1976 by four friends who were members of a photography group, the Vancouver Image Exhibition Workshop, which is known for bringing in acclaimed guest artists.
The group worked together for a year and, with the permission of the Canadian Cowboys Association, produced an exhibit at the Finals Rodeo in Edmonton in 1977. Tessler worked independently for the next two years, documenting life at rodeos throughout the west, from British Columbia to Manitoba and into the northwest corner of the United States. Aspiring for objectivity, she realized it was not attainable.
“I wanted to know more about the cowboys, what went on behind the chutes and on the road and what motivated them to take on the challenges they did unsupported by a team or steady income,” Tessler said.
The exhibit takes the viewer not only to the action, the cowboys riding – and falling – but also to the personal and the life surrounding the event: the preparations, the traditions, the camaraderie and the love. The photos evoke an emblematic sense of a particular era in Western Canadian life.
Grouped into three chapters – “Before the Rodeo,” “The Rodeo” and “After the Rodeo” – each photograph is accompanied by stories, observations and explanations from Tessler that encapsulate the feeling that existed the moment each image was taken.
These images are what photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who is referred to in the exhibit, called “the decisive moment.” Or, as scholar John Suler, also quoted in the exhibit, described as “the moment when the visual and psychological elements of people in a real-life scene spontaneously and briefly come together in perfect resonance to express the essence of that situation.”
Rodeo was the first large, thematic body of work that Tessler did. Every project she undertook, she said, began when she “noticed themes coming out on my contact sheets and felt there was something I wanted to pursue. Each took about three years.”
Tessler’s Crackin’ Out was followed by her next major work, Israeli Suite, which was photographed over several visits to Israel. There was no similarity between these bodies of work and her last large project was different still – Jewish life in the West Kootenays.
As for the Jewish connections to the rodeo exhibit, Tessler observed, “I didn’t meet another Jew the entire time and did not encounter or make use of any specific Jewish values while doing the work. Many cowboys knew I was Jewish, and one asked what I was doing photographing a bull-riding school instead of watching Shoah on TV every night. I did enjoy the uniqueness of being an urban, Jewish woman with a family ‘goin’ down the road,’ putting myself on the line to record another way of life.”
Genge’s documentary Crackin’ Out: The Ronnie Tessler Rodeo Collection is part of the exhibit. It expands on the legacy of Tessler’s photography by exploring a multitude of perspectives on rodeo from such people as a stock contractor, a curator, a child of rodeo, a cowboy, an artist and a professor, as well as the archives intern who processed the collection.
“One photograph does not illustrate one idea. By speaking with eight different people, my aim was to bring their collection of voices together to elucidate an ever-shifting narrative of an image,” Genge said. “This film offers a brief glance at some of the distinct and disparate angles that create a multifaceted and, at times, conflicted understanding of Western Canadian rodeo.
“I endeavoured with this film to present aspects of rodeo frequently left untold, specifically its importance to Indigenous people, women and LGBTQ+ communities. It should be noted that, much like Tessler’s inherent presence in capturing these photographs, my subjectivity in curating them is unavoidable,” she added. “I am an unreliable witness who, six months ago, had never set foot at a rodeo, so my bias as an outsider is present throughout.”
The exhibit, which can be found at jewishmuseum.ca/exhibit/crackin-out, also features an hour-long video of its April 21 launch, which includes discussions with Tessler and Genge.
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
Kind Café’s carrot lox is just one of the foods you’ll hear about during the podcast’s second season. (photo by Tosha Lobsing)
Looking for something to listen to? The Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia’s podcast The Kitchen Stories is back!
The Kitchen Stories explores culture, identity and community goings-on through conversations about food. Many of us have missed being able to connect with loved ones over food during the COVID-19 pandemic, and our relationships to shared meals and gatherings have had to shift. The Kitchen Stories is a chance to tune in to those food and community connections we’ve all been craving.
I’ll be chatting with kosher food suppliers, holiday meal super-hosts, and other community leaders and members about all things food. And, in keeping with Season 1, the themes we’ll be exploring this time around are varied and guests will weigh in from different perspectives and experiences. While most of the topics covered are new, we’ll be checking back in on the state of food (in)security in the Greater Vancouver Jewish community, and the organizations at the forefront of tackling it, later on in the season.
I’ve also shaken things up a little, and a few of this season’s episodes consist of longer-form interviews with guests who’ve done a lot of thinking about Judaism and Jewish food, and the ties between the two.
As I’m sure you’ve experienced, when we set out to talk about food, we inevitably end up getting into so much more. I’ve had a great time discussing with my guests their views on questions like, How can we draw from Jewish tradition to help others? How can we use food to break down barriers in our community? Is being vegan a Jewish activity? I even put on my detective hat and dug deep into the mysteries of a secret family recipe.
The universality of food and its many symbolisms mean that every episode of The Kitchen Stories is different from the last and, just like a big holiday meal, we’ve got something for everyone.
The first few episodes of Season 2 of The Kitchen Stories will hit the airwaves starting March 4, with new episodes released weekly after that. You can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. You can also check out Season 1 episodes at jewishmuseum.ca/the-kitchen-stories, on Spotify, or on Apple Podcasts.
Liana Glassis producer and host of The Kitchen Stories, Season 2.
The first London Drugs was located at 800 Main St. The drugstore chain was started by Sam Bass in 1945. (photo from City of Vancouver)
In the 163 years that Jewish people have been living in British Columbia, they have experienced a great many things, and our community history is comprised of millions of stories. It is the ongoing work of the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia to collect, preserve and share these stories.
This year, 2021, is a special one for the museum and archives – it’s the organization’s 50th anniversary. To mark the occasion, the JMABC will be releasing a special commemorative book. The volume is being designed as a keepsake to share with your children and grandchildren, or whichever young people you care about and whom you want to share your story with. It will provide a survey of our community’s rich history, fostering a connection between generations present and the past.
Dozens of community organizations are contributing their own organizational histories. Families and individuals are also invited to participate, either by contributing their family history or by nominating someone who has made a significant impact on the community, the region, or the world through their work, volunteer work, or philanthropy.
Full details about nominating or contributing are available at jewishmuseum.ca/fifty-years. Let the museum know who you think should be included.
Over the next several months, we’ll be publishing profiles of families and individuals to give you a taste of what you can expect in the anniversary publication. In this article, we share the story of Sam Bass, an innovative entrepreneur who left a lasting impact on the local Jewish community, the city of Vancouver and Canada as a whole.
Bass was someone who was never satisfied with the status quo. His restless creativity and business savvy made him an innovator of the modern drugstore. Born in 1915 on a Winnipeg farm to immigrant parents from Kiev, Ukraine, Bass received a diploma in pharmacy in 1939 from the faculty of pharmacy at the University of Manitoba. Following graduation, Bass enlisted, as a pharmacist, in the Royal Canadian Air Force for the Second World War. After the war, he decided to move to California; however, his planned brief stopover in Vancouver turned into permanent settlement.
Shortly after his arrival here in 1945, Bass purchased the old Schoff Drug Store at the corner of Main and Union streets. His first order of business was to change the name to London Drugs, named after London, England, the home of Canada’s then-king, King George VI.
Bass implemented the policy of a low-percentage markup on prescription drugs, he drastically increased the hours for dispensing prescription drugs (9 a.m. to midnight) and opened his store on Sundays. These actions flew in the face of existing conventions that drugstores only sold drugs during regular office hours at an industry-wide agreed-upon dispensing fee.
Bass’s new business model was extraordinarily successful, attracting customers from all over the city. He fought for years to defend his right to offer customers good-quality products and low prices. He went to the extent of advocating his position to the Supreme Court of Canada by appearing before a commission implemented by the federal government to investigate the cost of drugs. The commission eventually proposed five recommendations, three of which were found in Bass’s brief.
He shook up the pharmacy market in yet another important way, offering more than just pharmaceutical and medical items at a time when all stores offered exclusively specialized stock. Soon after the first London Drugs opened, Bass bought a full inventory of cameras and sold them at a discounted price. The gamble was a success and, to this day, cameras and home electronics remain cornerstone items at London Drugs. The practice has now become commonplace, with many large stores selling a wide diversity of products.
This tendency towards innovation gave London Drugs a competitive advantage and brought the company growing profitability. Over the next 20 years, Bass expanded the company to locations throughout the Lower Mainland. In 1968, after 23 years of ownership, he sold London Drugs to an American firm, the Daylin Corp., remaining on as London Drugs’ president until 1976, and overseeing further expansion. In 1976, the company was sold to the H.Y. Louis Group and, today, its stores number 78 across Western Canada.
Bass and his wife Muriel were very involved in the Jewish community and their family has continued their legacy. The Muriel and Sam Bass Family Fund continues to make contributions to Vancouver’s Jewish community following Sam Bass’s death in 1990, and Muriel Bass’s death in 2003.
Sam Bass’s life as a local entrepreneur stretched far beyond his personal success as a business owner. His legacy is represented by the widespread success of London Drugs across Western Canada. Its stores still reflect the business model that he revolutionized more than a half-century ago.
The expression of history matters. This issue, previously confined mainly to academic discourse, has been thrust into the public sphere as never before. In this year of upheaval and change, a spotlight seemed to follow the systemic racism exhibited by police forces across North America. Along with widespread protests about police behaviour came a wave of questions and action about how we choose to convey our collective history. Monuments toppled around the world, raising questions about how and why certain people are memorialized in our national consciousness and whose story is missing.
In Vancouver, the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia is at the forefront of this dialogue, pushing the agenda of inclusion and trying to make sure that the stories of as many members of our community are heard and recorded. The museum, which was founded as the Jewish Historical Society of British Columbia, has been engaged for decades in collecting the oral histories of Jews from the spectrum of Jewish life – the stories that provide a greater context to what it means to be Jewish in this place.
This year, at the Jewish Museum’s annual general meeting on Nov. 18, the keynote speaker contextualized the importance of having a variety of voices and experiences shape our collective understanding of history. Dr. Elizabeth Shaffer, executive director of the University of British Columbia’s Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre and assistant professor at the UBC School of Information, spoke to a group of well over 100 people via Zoom.
Shaffer highlighted issues of social justice, marginalization, accountability and collective remembering. Each of these topics is thought-provoking on its own, but, grouped together, the picture she painted was more than the sum of its parts. Shaffer discussed why certain monuments are problematic. She said the protests that took place this summer across the globe created a robust dialogue about “who counts.” Increased understanding that our current narrative is depicted from the perspective of the colonizer has shown the need for viewpoints of “othered people” to be included.
While Shaffer’s primary focus is on reconciliation and how museums and archives should be reimagining their roles in terms of the Indigenous population of Canada, she presented a broad call to examine practices and positionality vis-à-vis marginalized people. She suggested that museums need to collaborate with communities more and that technology has presented us with unique opportunities to do so. Social media has democratized the recording of history, allowing more citizens to contribute to the dialogue in ways never seen before. The challenge for museums and archives will be to decide how to thoughtfully filter and present this information.
“Under-documented communities do not trust museums because they are not represented,” said Shaffer. She suggested that participatory archives, which are by their nature democratic, holistic and citizen-focused, would help fill in the gaps and provide a broader representation of our history. She said, “Archival records hold power … they hold the collective and individual memory, and shape who is included and who is not.”
The recognition that museums and archives are not neutral is an important part of this work. These are some of the challenges facing the archives and museums, as greater transparency and community participation make our institutions of memory “safe and non-oppressive spaces” and repositories of an inclusive history.
Shaffer called on museums and archives to be agents of change, to be actively anti-racist and to dismantle the oppressive practices that have excluded marginalized narratives. One suggestion she had pertaining to the importance of transparency is documenting the way the story is told. She said there are deep-rooted challenges in the long game, but she has seen an interest in the museum community to do things better.
“Humility as an institution is key,” said Shaffer. “We need to reflect and evolve and have the courage to act when change needs to be made.”
In response to a question from the audience, Shaffer endorsed the practices of the JMABC, as it fulfils its mission and mandate. She encouraged the community to support other organizations as well. “Cross-pollination enriches everyone,” she said.
On Nov. 18, the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia held its annual general meeting and JMABC president Carol Herbert gave the following report, which has been edited for length.
What a roller coaster the last months have been! We are most grateful to our three dedicated staff members Marcy Babins, Alysa Routtenberg and Michael Schwartz, who reacted to the pandemic crisis promptly and creatively…. The staff have successfully sought out financial resources from government and granting agencies to allow us to continue our operations, supplemented by the generosity of our members when we put out a special call for donations. We are most grateful to those of you who responded, and especially to those of you who are Sustainers of the Archives.
The board has had a busy year…. We adopted a strategic communications plan prepared by Michael and the development committee, which states our vision and values. We completed and submitted a letter of intent to Federation and JCC to indicate our wish to relocate within the new campus when it is built. The board also endorsed an anti-racism statement, which was posted on our website in response to the troubling events of last summer, and since then has developed a policy on advocacy. A major focus for the board has been the plan for our 50th anniversary celebration of the Jewish Historical Society, which operates as the JMABC….
I have particularly appreciated the support of the executive committee, Daniella Givon, Michael Levy, Phil Sanderson and Perry Seidelman. The finance committee was activated after last year’s AGM, a programs committee has been established…. The Scribe committee has also been active, supporting the production of the 2020-21 issue on Jewish Education in British Columbia: K-12, and reviewing topics for future Scribes…. While we were unable to hold live events from early in March, staff continued to work on expanding the archival collection and preparing the 2020 Scribe, and they have conducted virtual programs…. While we have even been able to sustain some volunteer activity, only 72 hours have been logged since March of the total of 323.5 hours for the year, far less than usual…. Michael and Alysa have been able to recruit terrific students and interns to work with them virtually….
We reactivated the Council of Governors and we are most grateful to the stalwart supporters who serve as advisers to the board. Chaired by our past president, Perry, the council members are Gary Averbach, Isabelle Diamond, Mariette Doduck, Michael Geller, Bill Gruenthal, Richard Menkis and Ronnie Tessler…. We are most grateful to the board members who have continued to serve during these difficult times. We thank departing members Jerry Berkson (2018-20) and Ralph Swartz (2019-20), who served on the finance committee. We also thank Bill Gruenthal, who leaves the board after 22 years of service, though we are very happy that he will continue to serve on the Council of Governors. Three new individuals … are on the board slate….
Helen Aqua is a second-generation, Canadian-born Vancouverite…. Looking back in time has always interested Helen and, at one point, she volunteered as a docent with the Delta Museum and Archives, delivering local history talks to Grade 3 Delta schoolchildren in their classrooms…. After 17 years with Scouts Canada as a cub pack leader, member of the district service team and then the regional service team, Helen returned to school in 1985, earning a diploma in information systems and records management from Douglas College. Many interesting work opportunities resulted, culminating as the office coordinator for Immigrant Services Society’s Drake Street Settlement Services location. Post-retirement … Helen spent four years taking courses on end-of-life studies at Simon Fraser University, which led her to seek qualification as a death doula and then an advance care planning facilitator….
Lianna Philipp grew up in Vancouver and attended Richmond Jewish Day School as well as King David High School. She lived in Kingston, Ont., where she obtained a BComm at Queen’s University and returned to Vancouver to complete her CPA designation. Lianna currently serves on the board of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver and Temple Sholom Synagogue. She is passionate about engaging the next generation of Jewish leaders to help ensure a strong future for our community….
Barb Schober was born in the former Czechoslovakia but grew up in North Delta. She is currently a graduate student in the history department at the University of British Columbia, with a special interest in the history of Vancouver’s Jewish community. She is well-acquainted with the JMABC in that capacity, having made extensive use of the community records during some of her previous work on Holocaust commemoration and Jewish women’s groups. She is working on her PhD thesis, which is about Jewish immigration to Vancouver from Russia and the Soviet Union. She is also the student member of UBC’s faculty of arts Holocaust education committee.
[The AGM marks the official launch of] our 50th anniversary celebration, which will continue throughout 2021. Our first event is the speaker [who] will follow our AGM, Elizabeth Shaffer, who will talk about dialogue and disruption in contemporary museums, particularly in the context of anti-racism and human rights. [See story on page 12.] We will continue with the launch of the 2020-21 Scribe…. Plans are also underway for a photo exhibit from Ronnie Tessler’s fantastic collection that she donated to the archives, for a children’s art contest that we hope will engage young families, and for a gala launch event in November 2021 for the 50th anniversary commemorative book, which will be an overview of 160 years of Jewish history across British Columbia with lots of historical photos…. On our website [jewishmuseum.ca] you will find a sponsorship brochure, which details 50th anniversary and ongoing projects and programs….
Again, let me emphasize that we want every Jewish person in British Columbia to know that JMABC is your organization, keeping the record of community-building that has been accomplished by an array of individuals and families. Our watchwords are diversity and inclusion…. As Perry reminded us every year in his president’s remarks, make sure to seek out your own family stories and don’t throw away family photos and memorabilia. Every one of your stories matters. We will be delighted to interview you so that your oral narrative can be included in our archives – just contact us.
Embarking on a new archival project: left to right, Ye’ela Eilon-Heiber, Lily Hoenig, Mickey Morgan, Madison Slobin, Carmel Tanaka, Holly Steele, Avi Grundner and Alysa Routtenberg. (photo from JQT and JMABC)
The Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia (JMABC) and JQT Vancouver are seeking to document the history of local LGBTQ+ Jews through a joint initiative called On the Record: The BC Jewish Queer and Trans Oral History Project.
While the JMABC has an extensive – closing in on 1,000 – and diverse collection of oral histories, the experiences and stories of LGBTQ+ Jewish community members are not prominently featured. This is something the museum would like to change.
“We do a lot of oral histories and we typically target people in their 70s and 80s, for a number of reasons,” explained JMABC archivist Alysa Routtenberg of the process. “Generally, it’s a good age because people begin to feel reflective. They may have grandchildren with whom they would like to share their stories, they have wound their professional lives down and they are not yet suffering from memory or health issues.”
In addition, she said, given that a whole life history requires a significant story to tell, the interviews tend to feature older people.
And this might be one of the reasons why many of the oral histories of LGBTQ+ Jews have not yet been shared, according to Carmel Tanaka, JQT project coordinator.
“I have a friend who takes oral histories of LGBTQ seniors through UBC,” Tanaka told the Independent. “She says it’s hard to get people to stop talking about their lives once they get started. That is not the Jewish experience. We have a close-knit community and many older members fear being out in the Jewish community. They may be out in other aspects of their lives but not in the Jewish context, so many of them have remained silent.”
JQT (pronounced J-cutie) is a relatively new Jewish queer and trans group. Established in 2018, it aims to promote diversity and inclusion by “queering Jewish space and Jewifying queer space,” said Tanaka. The group approached the JMABC about the oral history project last year and interviewer training for the project was completed in January.
“We had six JQT members who trained as interviewers. They were ready to go and then COVID hit,” said Tanaka. “We had hoped to get 30 interviews done in three months. It’s been hard to get interviews done because the technology is difficult for some of our interviewees.”
Routtenberg agreed that people tend to prefer an in-person interview than one over the phone or via Zoom. “The interviews take between one and two hours,” she explained. “It’s a long time to be on the phone or in front of a computer.”
That said, a number of interviews have been completed, so the first phase of the project is underway, with the goal of 30 interviews conducted and transcribed. “Our objective is to reach a cross-section of LGBTQ Jews from across the province,” said Tanaka.
Both Routtenberg and Tanaka stressed that anonymity is provided for those who would prefer to keep their identities private.
The next phase of the project is to translate the interviews into a public program.
“What the interviews tell us will inform us as to the most appropriate form the material will take,” said Routtenberg. “Among our options are an online exhibition, a podcast, a physical exhibition…. There are so many possibilities. Hopefully, there will be many phases over many years.”
Routtenberg explained that the JMABC is always looking to build relationships with individuals and organizations both within and outside of the Jewish community. She said she was thrilled when Tanaka approached her to do this project together, and Jewish Family Services Vancouver is also helping, supporting the interview experience as needed.
Having the oral history of LGBTQ+ Jews as part of the JMABC records is helping accomplish the mission of JQT. “LGBTQ people have always been in our community,” said Tanaka. “This is an opportunity to make them feel included.”
For more information on how to participate in this project, or to nominate someone to be interviewed, contact Routtenberg at [email protected] or 604-257-5199.
Michelle Dodekis a freelance writer living in Vancouver.
Dancing at a Jewish Community Centre party, 1984. (photo from JWB fonds, JMABC L.11733)
If you know someone in these photos, please help the JI fill the gaps of its predecessor’s (the Jewish Western Bulletin’s) collection at the Jewish Museum and Archives of B.C. by contacting [email protected] or 604-257-5199. To find out who has been identified in the photos, visit jewishmuseum.ca/blog.
In the photo above and those below: People socializing at an unidentified event, possibly a University of British Columbia event in honour of Harry Adaskin, 1985. (The above photo is from JWB fonds, JMABC L.13764)
If you know someone in these photos, please help the JI fill the gaps of its predecessor’s (the Jewish Western Bulletin’s) collection at the Jewish Museum and Archives of B.C. by contacting [email protected] or 604-257-5199. To find out who has been identified in the photos, visit jewishmuseum.ca/blog.
Tour organizer Carmel Tanaka at one of the tours last stops. (photo by Kayla Isomura)
The first Jewish neighbourhood in Vancouver was in Strathcona, which also served as the first home for many, if not most, cultural communities that make up the diverse fabric of the city. The neighbourhood welcomed wave after wave of immigrants of different backgrounds and continues to do so today. The rich multicultural history of this area – too often overlooked amid the social challenges of the larger Downtown Eastside – was given its due in a series of walking tours this spring.
Carmel Tanaka organized the tours, bringing together almost two dozen community organizations. Tanaka is chair of the human rights committee of the Greater Vancouver Japanese Canadian Citizens’ Association and an active member of the Jewish community, but the tour is an ad hoc, grassroots project with no umbrella organizing agency. Partnering agencies include Heritage Vancouver, the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, the Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre, Vancouver Asian Heritage Month Society, the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia and the Jewish Independent. The Cross Cultural Strathcona Walking Tour took place each Sunday in May, with two tours each day. Tanaka said she hopes to make the tour an annual event.
Tanaka came up with the idea after participating in a walk of Hogan’s Alley, Vancouver’s historic black neighbourhood, as part of Jane’s Walks, a global festival of citizen-led walking tours inspired by the late visionary urbanist Jane Jacobs. A week after her exploration of the neighbourhood’s black history, Tanaka took the Jewish Museum’s walking tour of Strathcona.
“We were walking similar streets and even talking about places that are right across the road from each other and I started to think, well, there must have been interaction between our communities,” she told the Independent. “Why not bring the guides, the experts, the archivists and the know-alls into one room and see if we can do something together. What started as a small group of four to five guides, who do existing tours, blossomed into 20-plus participating organizations, including community organizations, heritage organizations, the Vancouver School Board and more. We’ve been told there have been attempts to do something like this before, but not to this degree. It’s very exciting that we’re all working together.”
The tour, which took in Hogan’s Alley, Jewish Strathcona, former Japantown and Chinatown, was intended to build awareness of the contributions of immigrant communities then and now. It took place in May as part of the celebration of Vancouver Asian Heritage Month and Canada’s Jewish Heritage Month.
The theme of the walking tour this year was education and the starting point of the two-and-a-half-hour adventure was Lord Strathcona Elementary School, the city’s oldest. Referred to as the “League of Nations” for its diversity, the school remains one of the most multicultural in the country.
One former Strathcona student, Elder Larry Grant of the Musqueam Nation and Chinese-Canadian communities, recalled the experience of growing up in the area and the impact the cultural mosaic had on him and others.
Opened in March 1891 as East School, it was renamed in 1909 in honour of Donald Smith, Lord Strathcona, who drove the last spike in Canada’s first transcontinental railway. To get a sense of the extraordinary range of ethnicities, a survey in 1940 indicated that the students included 650 of Japanese descent, 300 Chinese, 150 Italian, about 150 Yugoslavian, Ukrainian and Polish students, about 100 of British descent, several from India and a scattering from other European countries. After the regular school day, many of the students would have proceeded to after-school programs in their heritage language at, for example, the Vancouver Japanese Language School and Japanese Hall, a 1906 building on Alexander Street where the tour finished.
Jewish kids would have made their way down the block from Strathcona elementary to the B’nei Yehuda synagogue, since converted to condos but, at the time, the spiritual and figurative centre of Jewish life in the city. The synagogue opened in November 1911, with an after-school program in Jewish tradition. A full-time day school, Talmud Torah, opened there in 1921 and moved to its current location on Oak Street in 1948.
In 1942, when the Canadian government instituted a wartime policy against Japanese and Japanese-Canadians, about half of Strathcona school’s population disappeared, forcibly relocated to camps in the British Columbia interior and elsewhere east.
The tour featured different community guides at each destination along the route, bringing together a patchwork of knowledge about different communities to help participants form an impression about how different communities maintained their distinctiveness while interacting with the variety of cultures and languages around them.
Not far from the industrial waterfront, Strathcona grew, in part, from the maritime trade, especially the 1858 discovery of gold in the Fraser Canyon. But, as guides noted, the area has probably been a gathering place for thousands of years, initially as a summer campsite for the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations. The 1858 gold rush, and successive ones further north, brought merchants from China and Jewish provisioners from San Francisco. Indentured labourers from China, who worked on the Canadian Pacific Railway, helped launch the beginnings of Chinatown in the area around Pender Street. Japanese, Portuguese and Italian immigrants followed, with many working in the Hastings Sawmill and other resource-related industries.
The tour passed the National Council of Jewish Women Neighbourhood House on Jackson Street, a locus of Jewish social activity that is seen as a precursor to the Jewish Community Centre. The Vancouver chapter of NCJW was founded in 1924 and helped new immigrants settle, learn English and find jobs. One of their landmark programs was the Well Baby Clinic, which immunized kids and helped new parents care for their families. National Council remains active today, providing services especially for families and youth, educational and advocacy programs around human trafficking and spreading awareness about Jewish genetic diseases.
Later, the tour passed Oppenheimer Park, named for the city’s first – and so far only – Jewish mayor, David Oppenheimer.
An important part of the tour was Hogan’s Alley. The creation of the Georgia Viaduct destroyed a large part of the historic black neighbourhood but Fountain Chapel, a branch of the African Methodist Episcopal church, still exists, though it is now a private residence.
From Hogan’s Alley, the old Canadian National Railway station looms large to the south, and it was the profession of Pullman porter, made up almost exclusively of African-American and black Canadians, that was a launchpad to the middle class for many black families. The development of the black neighbourhood in this location owed its origins to the proximity to the train station.
From there, the tour proceeded into Chinatown and the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. A sawmill at the foot of Carrall Street, constructed in 1886, provided employment for many Chinese men and set in motion the establishment of Vancouver’s Chinatown on this block.
In 1947, the Chinese Immigration Act was repealed, rescinding a racist law and opening the door to more Asian newcomers and establishing equal rights, including the right to vote, for Chinese-Canadians. The tour also recalled how, in 1907, a group calling itself the Asiatic Exclusion League incited a mob of about 9,000 rioters who rampaged through Chinatown and Powell Street, smashing windows and destroying properties. This led to the federal government reducing immigration from East Asia.
The tour continued to the Mon Keang School in the Wongs’ Benevolent Association building, an example of a Chinatown clan society. These societies supported extended family members as they migrated, serving as housing agency, employment office, post office and bank for new arrivals. Chinese men could borrow money here to pay Canada’s discriminatory head tax and to send money home to their families in China.
Mon Keang School provided a classical Cantonese education to the first generation of local-born children and, in the 1930s, was just one of 10 such Chinese schools in the area. By the 1970s, Chinese families were living throughout the city and Chinese-Canadian kids were choosing sports and other extracurricular activities over Chinese school. Mon Keang School closed in 2011 but reopened in 2016 with a grassroots community program taking a different approach to Chinese language learning.
The history of Christian social action in the neighbourhood is demonstrated powerfully at the corner of Hastings and Gore, where the Salvation Army citadel, now boarded up, stands across from First United Church, a hub of social programs in the Downtown Eastside, and nearby Saint James Anglican, which also has a long activist history. While plenty of good work has emanated from these institutions, during the era of Indian residential schools in Canada, from 1883 to 1996, churches were complicit with the federal government in the genocide of indigenous Canadians through the deliberate and brutal attempts to exterminate indigenous cultures and languages.
The walking tour tries to highlight the main aspects of the area’s history, without romanticizing it.
“This is a grassroots initiative led by myself and a bunch of amazing, dedicated team members,” Tanaka said. “We’re really hoping that this will become an annual event and will be able to include even more communities next year. We’ll see what this turns into.”