While searching for traces of German emigrants in Western Canada, a group of researchers from the University of British Columbia started the project Arriving Eyes, a publicly accessible historical project that collects interviews and family photos, to tell the stories of German native speakers who emigrated to Canada in the 19th and 20th centuries.
To get the website off the ground, UBC Germanic studies assistant professor Kyle Frackman, former-UBC masters student (and current University of Calgary librarian) Marc Stoeckle and UBC reference librarian Keith Bunnell began searching archives and mining personal connections to gather as much material as possible. “We were interested to know why B.C., of all places,” says Frackman. “Especially since so many of the people who had come here would have had to travel across North America.”
As most of the German immigrants to Canada arrived at one of the country’s main eastern hubs, taking the extra leap west would have provided a logistical challenge. Considering why German-speaking Canadians may have taken that jump is an important detail in western Canadian history. Perhaps unsurprisingly, what they found were a diversity of reasons for the German-speaking population (from Germany, Austria and Switzerland) to settle in the Vancouver and Lower Mainland regions. As most Germans “land” in the eastern part of Canada, “We often found that people had an interest in nature and in landscape, that brought them here,” says Frackman. Likewise, “In the early days, it was often people who were willing to go into the mountains to look for gold, or with an interest in working in industries like forestry and logging.”
Interview with the Milewski family at Maple Ridge, BC | © Martin Milewski
Stoeckle was driven by a desire to fill gaps that had culturally formed within German-speaking history in Canada. “Historically, research shows that Germans assimilate very quickly,” he says. “That’s why we decided to do something in that regard.”
What Frackman and his team expected their primary challenge to be – the tracking down of sources willing to share their experiences – proved surprisingly easy. In the end, Stoeckle had to turn away participants. Then, he hit the field – researching in archives, interviewing sources in their homes and flipping through photo albums alongside them. He sought a balance of oral history sources: a married couple, someone who had moved to Canada very young, a backpacker who arrived in the 1960s, and a more modern “container German,” who packed up their whole life in Germany to move to Canada. A diversity in experience brought up some similarities in points of view that surprised Stoeckle: “One of the first things they were surprised about were ‘flimsy’ houses,” he laughs. “Everyone mentioned that. The houses here are just wood!”
A larger challenge for the team was bridging the German-English linguistic divide. “A lot of the materials that we found were in German,” Frackman explains. The team faced down an inherent difficulty in communicating the experiences of German speakers to a primarily-English speaking audience. “A lot of times that presented us with the question of whether we were going to translate things, or whether we were going to paraphrase things to present it in a compelling way,” Frackman adds.
But this was part of the fun, for Stoeckle, who wanted to let the Germans speak how they most felt comfortable – this often led to shifts in language over the span of interviews. When it came time to present these experiences, the project’s storytelling was rooted in Arriving Eyes’ intuitive website, stocked with archival photos and layered with audio files and archival texts. The little project from UBC had suddenly expanded beyond its initial form – that of a bibliography of texts about the German-Canadian experience.
Evelin McCarvill at Vancouver Island, BC | © Rob McCarvill
Frackman says the project’s success is hinged on the fact that it presents the everyday life of German-speaking Canadians. “For some of these people, they came and made their initial journeys 50 years ago,” he says. “They were doing something that is really unusual. It was not common for German immigrants to go to the eastern regions of Canada or the U.S. But it was far less common for them to come this far west. For some, that was a compelling reason to make the journey in the first place. But I think a lot of people felt the need to talk about why they had done that.”
Stoeckle hopes to expand the project and make the website more accessible. “There’s so much more,” he says. “Someone said, ‘Why do you want to interview us? We didn’t have a special life, there’s nothing that we accomplished.’ But I said that’s exactly the accomplishment – one life. That’s the most special thing.”