(Original Title: Founding a Chinese Historical Society in Canada: Challenges and Lessons from the United States)
In May 2004, a dozen of us formally established the Chinese Canadian Historical Society of British Columbia. We began accepting members in October and held our founding event in November. That was a two-day workshop on doing Chinese Canadian genealogy and local history We invited three CHSA members, Him Mark Lai, Marji Lee, and Russell Leong, to come and act as an informal panel discussing how similar organizations have been established in the United States and some related issues. One hundred fifty people attended, and most of them signed on as members of CCHS. Within the space of two months we went from twelve members to two hundred members. Part of that surge was due to the attractiveness of the program--the panel referred to and the genealogical discussions. It was also related to the bargain price of membership, $20, that we had set. But part of it was clearly a definite interest in the subject and the goals we were setting ourselves. In January 2005, we held a Research Fair in which twenty of our members who were doing independent research on aspects of Chinese Canadian history in British Columbia displayed their work. This event was held in a museum on a rainy Saturday. Normally, that museum draws about seventy-five visitors on such days. But on that day about three hundred people went through our fair. The publicity around the fair also drew considerable response, especially callers, to a phone-in radio show. Since then we've sponsored or cosponsored a variety of events, all of them well attended. At our next Annual General Meeting in January 2006, we will find out how well we maintain that initial surge of membership and interest.
A major thrust of our work right now is preparing an application to the government for charitable status, which, once achieved, will allow us to issue tax receipts to donors. We hope to have that in hand by some time in 2006. We are presenting ourselves as essentially a nonprofit public education organization. Our mandate is broad. Fundamentally, it is to bring out the unknown roles of the Chinese in the history of our province. To do this we will work to preserve research materials on Chinese Canadian history and facilitate their availability to researchers and the public, promote research, encourage the teaching of the subject in the schools, and promote public awareness. We hope that we may thereby take a step toward rewriting the history of British Columbia in multicultural terms. Multiculturalism is the official national policy in Canada. But that fact has not resulted, so far, in any multicultural histories of the country or of individual provinces.
As can readily be seen by the references to our province, we are not aiming to be a national organization. We are not the Chinese Canadian Historical Society of Canada; we are the Chinese Canadian Historical Society of British Columbia only, The reason is simple. In Canada organizations of this kind that try to go national immediately almost always fail. In our case the two major centers of Chinese population in Canada are Vancouver and Toronto. The two cities (and their provinces) do not communicate well with each other. We are better off starting small. There is plenty to do in British Columbia. Toronto is free to start its own historical society focused on the Province of Ontario. Some day we and they may bring together these two poles and everything between in Canada, but not now.
I've often been asked questions about CCHS, at international meetings, especially. Why hasn't Canada established something like this before, especially given the American example of thirty or forty years ago? Why are we establishing such an organization now? Is it like the Chinese Historical Society of America? The CHSA has had considerable influence on the thinking of some of us. I have been a member since the 1970s. Others have been aware of CHSA as a possible example for Canada, and today, in some ways, it has become just that. But in the 1970s and 1980s we were not ready to go down that path. There was plenty of history-related activity going on in Canada's Chinatowns but seemingly not in that direction.
To understand this we can try looking at the differing histories of the United States and Canada where ethnic Chinese are concerned. The seemingly similar trajectories of American and Canadian...