A new gallery at the Royal B.C. Museum seeks to shed light on an often-overlooked part of B.C.’s history.
A Tale of Two Families, a small pocket gallery on the museum’s main floor, shares the stories of a Chinese Canadian family and a French Canadian family whose roots in the province can be traced back to the gold rush era, beginning in 1858.
The museum’s curator of history, Tzu-I Chung, who developed the display, said the goal is to show British Columbians a more well-rounded history of the province that recognizes the role minority communities have played in building B.C. and the racism and discrimination some faced.
Chung said it can be difficult to trace the history of early immigrant families, which were often marginalized in mainstream accounts of the province’s history.
“The problem is the official account then leaves out a lot of different peoples who actually helped build Canada and the province in very important ways,” Chung said.
The stories of the Louie-Seto family and the Guichon family underscore the challenges they faced in B.C. during the Great Depression, the Chinese exclusion era and two world wars, offering a lesson in overcoming adversity that Chung said is particularly timely given the COVID-19 pandemic, which has brought economic uncertainty and instability for many.
“I think people, if they can really see the lessons here, it’s about even through very difficult times, people can be kind and charitable and taking care of each other. And because of that, people can be resilient through generations,” she said.
Members of the Louie-Seto family helped to build the Canadian Pacific Railway that connected the country, the construction of which relied on Chinese labour. Others were forced to pay a head tax to move to Canada, a fee only Chinese immigrants were required to pay that was meant discourage Chinese immigration after the railway was complete.
That’s the Canada that Brandt Louie’s paternal grandfather, Hok Yat Louie, encountered when he arrived from China, seeking a better life.
“These immigrants came understanding that they wouldn’t have the language, wouldn’t have the culture, there might be discrimination, there was discrimination. They also knew there was a head tax, but they probably arranged through their family clan associations or somebody to pay them,” said Louie, who is chairman of London Drugs and president and CEO of H.Y. Louie Co. Limited.
His grandfather paid the tax for hundreds of people who couldn’t afford to cover the cost themselves.
On his maternal side, Louie’s great-grandfather came to Vancouver Island in 1862, five years before Canada became a country and nearly a decade before B.C. joined confederation.
Despite the family’s long history in the country, Louie-Seto family members, including subsequent generations born in Canada, were denied the right to vote until 1947.
Brandt Louie’s father and brothers enlisted to fight for Canada in the Second World War. His uncle Quan Louie was shot down and killed in 1945, two years before any of his family could cast a vote.
“The right to vote is taken for granted today. But back then they actually fought so hard,” Chung said.
Louie hopes the gallery will show British Columbians the important contributions made by pioneers from minority communities in developing the province and the country.
“We helped build it and made it what it is today … I think we’re very lucky to live in this country. We don’t realize that, and we don’t realize it because we don’t know its history. And hopefully this will go a long way to helping people learn its history,” he said.
The Guichon family, also represented in the gallery, established themselves in many key industries in the province, including agriculture, ranching and tourism.
Maurice Guibord, president of the B.C. Francophone Society, said they suggested the museum share the Guichon family story, because the Guichon brothers were early immigrants to the West Coast whose descendants have maintained their ties to the family ranching business and the Nicola Valley for generations.
Judith Guichon operated a family ranching business in the Interior before serving as B.C.’s lieutenant-governor from 2012 to 2018.
“This is one of the oldest French-speaking families in the province, that maintained its use of that language for several generations,” Guibord said in a video speech presented at a museum event Wednesday.
The free gallery display runs until Nov. 2.