Oral History in the Dining Room

One granddaughter’s account of retracing her cultural footsteps.

Six years ago, I conducted an oral history interview with my grandmother, or Beppe as we called her.  A few short months after the interview, she passed away at the age of 89. After her funeral all of her family gathered together and we listened to her speak once again through a recording, telling us the stories that we had heard so many times before with her thick accent and mispronunciations of a language she never quite mastered. I suppose I could have read the transcription instead (in fact, I have as part of a conference presentation) but my iteration would have lacked her charm, humour and intonation. How could I ever hope to replicate the way she spoke so earnestly about her faith in God, or her laugh when she told the story of how she met her husband?

The project
Storytelling is powerful. Voice has the ability to convey emotion in a way that words lack. The irony of oral histories is that the best part is not what is spoken; instead, it’s the specific pauses, a nervous giggle, a subtle hesitation for a tear. It is this that inspired me to continue to research Dutch immigrants and their oral histories. 

As the granddaughter of Dutch immigrants on both sides of my family, oral histories of Dutch immigrant communities are a research focus that is very personal. When I had to choose a subject for my graduate studies, a previous professor directed my attention to the project I had done with my Beppe the year prior – the project that ignited my love for voice and storytelling.  

I am now more than a year into my Masters’ research at the University of Victoria, a project that operates in partnership with the Gerry Segger Heritage Collection (GSHC) at the King’s University in Edmonton (See Saving Dutch-Canadian History, May 25, 2019). With the assistance of Bonita Bjornson (archivist for the GSHC) and Dr. William VanArragon (Professor of History at King’s), I created a proposal and received external funding. I spent my days combing through church bulletins and word-of-mouth recommendations to find interview candidates. It was through this process that I met Ena. 

Meeting Ena
It was late in June when I interviewed Ena in Lacombe, Alberta, a small city often mistaken for an even smaller town. When I walked into her apartment, she asked if I was Rick’s daughter and wondered how my parents’ move to their new house was going. Just like that, Ena broke down any barrier of unfamiliarity I had foolishly perceived. Her inquiry about my personal life also raised my awareness to the inherent subjectivity of conducting research within my own community. 

Ena reminds me of my Beppe likely as much as I remind her of her grandchildren. She insisted on serving me coffee and cake at the dining room table next to a china cabinet which housed precious items such as her wedding photo and Delft blauw china. Her home smelled clean, like cinnamon. The patio door was open to let in the breeze.  

In the 1950s and 60s, Canada received many newcomers from the Netherlands. Many of them, like Ena and her husband, settled in the prairie region of Canada looking for new opportunity and more space than Holland had. The postwar generation was looking for work. Dutch people had survived bombing, starvation and occupation during World War II and many yearned for new beginnings. Canada, New Zealand and the United States captured the interest of Netherlanders, but they would all find that the grass was not so much greener on the other side as it was a different plant altogether. For Ena it was the North Sea Flood of 1953 in Holland that spurred her and her husband to fast track their plan to emigrate. Within a matter of months, they were packed and ready for their new life in a new land. 

When asked about her first impression of Canada, Ena was at a loss for words. “Going through northern Ontario, you saw nothing but big rocks and trees. You know, you go through northern Ontario it’s just [gestures]. And the prairies! Is there no end to it [laughs].” It’s impossible to replicate on the printed page, but if you close your eyes, can you hear Ena’s voice? Does her laugh sound familiar? 

Why oral history?
Oral history continues to be among the most effective mediums for collecting immigrant stories. For those historians who study centuries back, it is impossible to consult the subjects of their research. Just as you are forced to imagine Ena’s voice, they too are left without the gestures and intonation. 

My interview with Ena is an example of over 30 interviews that were conducted throughout the summer of 2019, each chock-full of unique stories of adventure, fear, gain and loss. For me as a historian and member of the Dutch Canadian community, this project went beyond research. I was reminded of the people I come from and the way that I came to be where I am. And isn’t that what history should strive for? A connection to ourselves and an orientation in the world through listening to the voices of our communities and those who came before us.

  • Elyse is a graduate student with the University of Victoria living in Edmonton, AB. She completed her BA at The King’s University in 2017 and her MA in Public History at the University of Victoria. She continues to work with the Gerry Segger Heritage Collection on various projects.

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