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ARCHIVED - Framing Canada:
A Photographic Memory

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The Canadian Mosaic

Photograph of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church with a second, smaller building beside it, Canora, Saskatchewan, date unknown
Ukrainian Orthodox Church
Canora, Saskatchewan, unknown date
Photographer: unknown

Canada's diversity has been documented from the earliest days of photography. In 1857, Paul-Émile Miot became the first photographer requested to document a French naval hydrographic expedition. His photographs of settled francophone fishing communities in Newfoundland are an early example of this country's cultural heritage being captured by camera.

When examining historic photos of immigration and settlement, it is important to look beyond the image and ask why specific photographs were taken and by whom. Were the photos initiated by the people themselves, perhaps depicting the pride they felt in their growing communities? Or did curious amateur photographers take snapshots of newly arrived immigrants, finding them, perhaps, objects of curiosity? Being aware of possible biases that existed when a photograph was taken, either on the part of the photographer or the agency that commissioned the photograph, is imperative. By learning why certain photographs were taken, much can be understood about Canadian society and the lives of Canadians from different cultural backgrounds.

Examples of possible biases on the part of a commissioning agency include the Canadian National Railway (CNR) dossiers on new immigrants. In the 1920s and 30s, the CNR created these photographic dossiers as part of the government's required monitoring of the progress of immigration. In these photographs, families stand next to their newly constructed homes; as symbols of success in the new world, these images aim to convince others in Europe to immigrate. The dossiers, then, served commercial purposes, since continued immigration along train routes would increase the CNR's revenues. Some scholars have argued that the CNR also used these photographs to dissuade the Canadian government from its belief that the families depicted (some of whom were part of "non preferred" ethnic groups, according to government policy) did not make good settlers. In this interpretation, the photographs were also meant to show that immigrants were making important contributions to the development of the nation.

Other photographs documenting cultural communities trumpet the success of government programs that are now believed to have been wrongful, such as the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War. This event was documented in an ambiguous and in some cases approving manner by official sources such as the Department of National Defence and the National Film Board.

The arrival of different cultural groups to Canada has been viewed as a blessing and a curse at different times in the country's history. The 1914 detention of the Komogata Maru passenger ship full of hopeful Sikh immigrants, and the imposition of the Chinese head tax are two examples of how Canadian citizens and their government have not wished to promote what we now call "multiculturalism." However, photographs at Library and Archives Canada also document the shift away from an exclusionary way of thinking. Photographs from after the Second World War show proud, strengthening cultural communities and a welcoming attitude from settled Canadians and government. Photographs taken for cultural organizations or by private individuals are essential to telling the story of immigration and community building from the perspective of the people who lived these experiences. Even amateur snapshots  --  from such collections as those of Thomas Shoyama, Louis Rosenberg, the Finnish Organization of Canada or the Canadian Hungarian Association  --  are invaluable historical documents that provide a counterbalance to government and other official sources of photography.