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Become a Cultural Navigator

Unarchived reveals how photo and document collectors blew apart official narratives of marginalized B.C. communities

Satwinder Kaur Bains
University of the Fraser Valley scholar Satwinder Kaur Bains is raising awareness about the lives of South Asian pioneers to B.C. (Image from the film, courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada.)

There’s a hoary cliché that history is written by the victors. And that’s recorded in government archives.

But this is not how UNBC First Nations Studies professor Daniel Sims sees it.

“It is the kind of saying that people think makes them look smart,” Sims wrote last year in the Prince George Citizen. “It fails to take into account that history is actually written by whoever decides to actually take the time to write it down, nothing more, nothing less. The next step is to make sure people read what you wrote.“

In that spirit, filmmakers Hayley Gray and Elad Tzadok have documented how community archivists took the time to record their own B.C. history of communities that have faced intense discrimination. Members of these communities certainly weren’t the victors throughout much of the nation’s existence.

Yet in the National Film Board–produced Unarchived, their stories and images come to life.

Henry Yu
In Unarchived, UBC historian Henry Yu explains how oppressive state tactics—recorded in official archives—yielded deep insights. (Image from the film, courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada.)

In the film, UBC historian Henry Yu explains that “surveillance created archives” and “the process of silencing makes a lot of noise”.

That’s because government officials kept records documenting measures and actions to exclude the victims of white supremacy from full participation in society.

These records enable Yu and other historians to build narratives about the lives of the excluded and marginalized.

Watch the trailer for Unarchived.

Unarchived shows history of Paldi

In addition, University of the Fraser Valley’s director of the South Asian Studies Institute, Satwinder Kaur Bains, talks a great deal about the history of the Vancouver Island community of Paldi, which was founded in 1916.

Once a thriving forest community near Duncan, its history was documented by Joan Mayo. She married into a prominent South Asian family that created the town’s lumber mill.

Moreover, her vast collection of photos demonstrate that Paldi was a diverse community in which people of Indian, Chinese, European, and Japanese ancestry lived in relative harmony and attended school together.

Bains points out that these simple everyday stories were not captured in official histories or museum exhibits. They basically erased South Asians, apart from some photos of them working in the lumber industry, even though they helped build the province.

Ron Dutton
Ron Dutton was the unofficial archivist of Vancouver’s LGBTQ+ community. (Image from the film, courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada.)

Meanwhile, Unarchived also devotes a great deal of attention to the efforts of Vancouver resident Ron Dutton in recording the history of Vancouver’s LGBTQ+ community. “My strategy was to collect everything,” he says.

As a result, it’s now possible to see how a massive LGBTQ+ bar scene and a wide-ranging political movement emerged in the early 1970s.

Dutton points out how they often worked in tandem for the betterment of the community, which was recorded in LGBTQ+ newspapers and zines.

In 2017, Dutton turned over his massive collection to the Vancouver Archives, which proceeded to digitize many records so that they’re now available over the Internet.

Magnus Berg
Media librarian Magnus Berg is helping fellow trans people learn about their “transcestors”. (Image from the film, courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada.)

Ethnobotany offers historical clues

For those who love learning about the history of marginalized communities in B.C., Unarchived offers other treats as well.

Aaron Drever, founder of the Transgender Archives at UVic, takes trans media librarian Magnus Berg on a tour to learn more about his “transcestors”.

Imogene Lim
Vancouver Island University scholar Imogene Lim has researched the history of lost Chinatowns. (Image from the film, courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada.)

Elsewhere in the film, Vancouver Island University professor Imogene Lim points out that several Chinatowns disappeared in the 20th century due to a variety of reasons, including displacement and fires.

She also shows how ethnobotany can offer reminders of lost communities through existing vegetation. Chinese settlers, for instance, would plant bamboo or watercress, which remain on the landscape, offering clues as to the location of where they may have lived.

Sandra Marion
Sandra Marion has helped create an impressive archive of Tahltan history. (Image from the film, courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada.)

Furthermore, there’s a vivid and poignant section in Unarchived showing the efforts of the Tahltan Central Government to document its history.

In fact, this province was built on the theft of land from Indigenous peoples. While this wasn’t communicated to generations of B.C. schoolchildren, this history coincided with government authorities and their media cheerleaders supporting the subjugation of non-white and non-heterosexual people.

That legacy is finally coming to light, with the help of dogged community archivists whose contributions have rarely been recognized. Unarchived addresses this historical injustice.

Aaron Dever
Scholar Aaron Devor is founder of the Transgender Archives housed at the University of Victoria. (Image from the film, courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada.)

The IMAX Victoria Film Festival 2023 will present three screenings of Unarchived at 7:15 p.m. on Sunday (March 5), Friday (March 10), and Saturday (March 18). For tickets and more information, visit the festival’s website. Follow Pancouver editor Charlie Smith on Twitter @charliesmithvcr. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.

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Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.