Project Description

The title of the project "Local Culture and Diversity on the Prairies" hints at several key issues for this research;

Local (vernacular) culture,
Cultural diversity and ethnic identity
and a focus on the prairies.

The Action Plan for the project involves a design phase, fieldwork phase, archiving phase, analysis phase, and dissemination phase. Current funding, until March 2005, allows for a focus on design and fieldwork. Further stages of work for this project will be associated with additional funding, and will continue beyond 2005.

Key Questions
The key questions for the project are: How did people from diverse backgrounds interact, adapt and "become prairie Canadians" in the first half of this century? What was the relationship between cultural inheritance and local community participation? How did they express their various identities on the local community level? What factors affected any regional variation in such communities as they evolved over time? The project will generate a great deal of documentary information and primary archival resources for further research in many aspects of the Canadian prairie heritage.

The intangible cultural heritage of western Canada requires urgent documentation from numerous perspectives. Vernacular culture in western Canada has been very sparsely documented in contrast to the work conducted in the eastern regions of the country. Without projects such as this, future generations of Canadians will be restricted to an incomplete pool of resources from which to understand their heritage.

The strategy of systematically tracking community variation across western Canada is an innovative approach in Canadian ethnic studies and will make a significant contribution to research capabilities in this field. Whereas many studies of ethnic culture deal with connections between the diaspora communities and the land of origin, emphasis on variation by location within Canada will require the researchers in this project to focus explicitly on adaptation to the Canadian context in each case. Integration into the Canadian setting will likely be shown to involve a complex relationship between ethnic identification and Canadianization; the two are not always inversely related.

This research project will allow for a perspective that highlights the complex interrelationships among "ethnic" and "Canadian" identities. This perspective will be more rounded than most, based on rich empirical data, helping Canadians transcend popular cliches and soundbytes. The project has great theoretical value for the social sciences as it sheds light on processes of globalization, nationalism, transnationalism, social cohesion, and the active growth of local community.

Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Identity
"Ethnic identity" is defined very broadly for this project to include affiliation with any particular ethno-cultural sub-group within the larger prairie population. The term "ethnic group" is more often ascribed to Germans and Ukrainians than to English or French communities in Canada. Significant for us however, is that (im)migrants with each of these ancestries were certainly conscious of cultural differences between their place of origin and the Canadian prairies. They all experienced many moments of identity negotiation and options for integration.

A focus on German, Ukrainian, English and French ancestry is not intended to be exclusive. Indeed, people of mixed and other ancestry will also be interviewed, though a concentration on specific populations by ancestry reflects the special research competence of the research team and increases the potential for detailed comparisons based on locality. Each of these four groups shares a significant presence in the Canadian prairies, with large populations established prior to the First World War and further substantial immigration in the interwar period.

Research on ethnicity through vernacular culture facilitates the inclusion of a wide range of individuals, including those who had strong identification with their ethnic inheritance, people with multiple heritages, and others whose ethnic background impacted their lives minimally. The overlapping and contrasting experiences of these groups have not been tracked systematically on local levels to understand how they experienced their (im)migrant and Canadian identities beyond generalized stereotypes. This project will specifically emphasize hybrid and Canadianized forms of culture as well as newly created traditions in addition to any pre-migration elements. A more subtle and complex understanding of diversity and identity in the Canadian West will contribute to tolerance.

Local (Vernacular) culture
Ethnic experience and identity in Canada is usually discussed in terms of three spheres: local traditions, language, and organizational life. This project will concentrate on the first of these categories; local traditions. Ethnographic research about past experiences of integration and Canadianization is best done indirectly. In this project, these topics are studied as embedded in the sphere of informal cultural life in the local context.

Local informal culture, often referred to as "vernacular culture," includes family life, personal relations, customs, traditions, expressive culture, occupational lore and recreation. Vernacular culture can be contrasted with organized "official" ethnic community history, which has been documented fairly substantially in Canada. Vernacular culture tends to be more ephemeral, and often falls outside the scope of conventional historical research. Understanding local traditions, however, is valuable in that they can reflect people's attitudes, identity, and practical considerations very potently and subtly. Vernacular culture operates on a level that is usually less explicitly ideological than official organizational activity. Studying this cultural sphere will allow for a discussion of people's cultural experiences and interethnic relations from a more neutral, elastic, and wholistic perspective.

Since vernacular culture in itself is a very broad sphere, the project's focus will be further narrowed to four categories: ritual expressions; material culture; verbal traditions; and performance arts. These categories of activity are recognized as key markers of ethnic communities. At the same time they are very flexible and responsive to contextual factors. Interethnic relations (maintenance of cultural boundaries, borrowing, integration) often manifest themselves actively here. These four categories are also pervasive enough that they are researchable in every local community.

The Prairies
In comparison with other regions in Canada, the prairies were populated quite recently, and still partly within the range of living memory. People who remember the first half of this century are now 70-80 years old or older (we can occasionally extend the dates of "living memory" back to 1900 if we include the vivid narratives some people can retell from their parents' stories). This region is narrow enough to be sampled systematically, narrow enough to constitute a generally common backdrop to local life, but broad enough to include a substantial diversity of experiences and micro-regions within. The cultural character of the prairies was strongly influenced by (im)migrants from various source cultures. These people and their descendants have tended to integrate strongly, while sometimes also continuing to retain connection with pre-migration identities.

The first decades after (im)migration were times in which many of the most profound cultural adaptations took place. "Canadianization" up to World War Two seems to have had a different character than in more recent times, influenced by the influx of immigrants to rural and urban settings, practices of "block settlement" in some areas, as well as the specific social attitudes, transportation technology and media presence of the era. Knowledge of this era is important to place the contemporary period in perspective. It is urgent since these experiences are quickly passing beyond living memory and less documentary and physical evidence remains than for popular culture of recent years.

Action Plan
The overall project proposal envisioned five overlapping phases:

1. Design Phase.
The first phase of the project will involve assembling the partners for two workshops to establish and verify details of the project plan. The numerous current repositories of oral histories will be surveyed for relevance to the project and accessibility. Specific research hypotheses will be identified as a base for establishing researcher procedures. Details of research methods will be settled: Previous sociological and folkloristic research questionaires will be consulted to relate this project's findings to the broader research context. Information on historical settlement patterns and demography will be used to identify geographic coverage as well as relevant strengths and weaknesses in the existing material. This information will be used to map out the specific communities targeted for the research. The project manager, consultants, participating archives and minor research participants will be identified. The questionaires and other methods will be tested and revised as necessary.

2. Fieldwork Phase.
The project will involve over 60 months of researcher time over a two year period, resulting in hundreds of oral histories. Undergraduate students, graduate students and others will be hired as fieldworkers, requiring knowledge of at least one of the cultural communities as well as paririe history and/or ethnography. Fieldworkers will consist primarily of undergraduate and graduate students in relevant fields. They will be hired and instructed in using the four specific methods of information gathering: a brief standardized questionaire; extended oral histories; commentaries about family photograph collections, and a shortened format for specific interview situations. They will travel to many locations in the prairies to interview appropriate individuals, some of which continue to live in the place where they experienced the prairies prior to 1939. Fieldworkers will conduct informal conversations, audio interviews, video interviews, and photograph description sessions with appropriate digital equipment. Fieldworkers will be responsible for conducting interviews and creating indexes. The project manager will monitor the progress and consult with project partners for strategic decisions on an ongoing basis.

3. Archiving Phase.
Archives for the project will be confirmed, and archival staff hired as necessary. Plans are to deposit materials related to each specific cultural group in that community's archives. Interview materials, memoirs, photographs and local histories will be collected from the fieldworkers for accessioning, archival processing and preservation. The archivists will follow a standardized and detailed procedure to facilitate seamless comparative work within the project. Where possible, pre-existing archival materials will be described using the standard project criteria to allow integration into the databases. A national union catalogue of resources in this sphere is a project goal.

4. Analysis Phase.
As the collected information becomes available, research partners, the project manager, fieldworkers, and consultants will examine it in relation to the hypotheses and variables identified in the project design phase. Some of the work will be undertaken independently and by electronic mail, but at least three seminars/conferences are forseen to physically bring together the participants from different cities. Interesting findings will be fed back to the fieldworkers for further exploration where possible.

Aside from its value in providing primary descriptive data on this aspect of Canadian heritage, the project will facilitate exploration of the key questions identified above, dealing with the complex interactions of Canadian and other identities, and regional variation. Specific themes will be suggested by the research findings themselves, and will likely include:
  • To identify specific "regions" of each target cultural group in western Canada, and outline the aspects in which they differ
  • To explore the various factors responsible for the formation of this regional differentiation:
    - farming versus mining versus urban communities
    - environment and geography
    - relatively homogeneous ethnic communities versus more mixed settlements
  • To explore differentially how the ethnic salience was highlighted and muted in the Canadian context
    - public versus domestic sphere.
    - material culture versus intangible traditions.
  • To explore how these people's culture and experience contributed to the development of "mainstream" Canadian prairie culture in this period.

5. Dissemination Phase.
Dissemination of project findings will be directed to the general public as well as researchers in the field:

  • To develop a site on the University of Alberta Virtual Museum which would allow the public as well as specifically interested researchers to access the material via links on a map, as well as through other interface options;
  • To develop a "Discovery Station" a permanent micro-museum based on school curriculi for students grade 5-12. This station will form one component of the Discovery Tour connected with the University of Alberta's museums and collections and accessible through the internet.
  • To develop a series of popular books on themes of change, variation and persistence in Canadian ethnic culture on the prairies prior to 1939. These materials will be made available in English, French, and relevant heritage languages. Specific topics will depend on themes suggested during the collecting process.
    Anticipated themes include:

- Local culture in prairie communities
- How public and private immigrant traditions change differently when adapting to Canadian settings
- How ethnic communities develop differently in agricultural, mining and urban settings
- How ethnic communities develop hybrid Canadian customs and traditions
- Canadian Ukrainian prairie traditions
- Canadian German prairie traditions
- Canadian French prairie traditions
- Canadian English prairie traditions

  • To conduct a preliminary investigation into the feasibility of producing a documentary for broadcasting based on the collected material
  • To upload the archival catalogue information collected for this project into digital interfaces that allow for researcher access and, where appropriate, public internet access through a dedicated website
  • To organize and publish selected exerpts of the original collected material through a website
  • To compile a Canada-wide union finding aid of published and archival resources on the cultural life of each participant group on the prairies to 1939.
  • To present seminars and other presentations on the findings of this research at seminars and conferences in Canada and internationally