By: Carrie Catherine
“Since I was cut from the reedbed,
I have made this crying sound.
Anyone apart from someone he loves
understands what I say.
Anyone pulled from a source
longs to go back…”
Aboard the Canada C3, we have the outstanding conceptual artist Soheila Esfahani, who turned to this poem as her inspiration and solace when she experienced a longing for her home of Tehran. On a bright Halifax morning, we hunkered down in the hangar and listened to her explain how her immigration to Canada inspires her work. She dives deep into themes of homesickness, cultural and linguistic translation. Her talk was the perfect introduction for our visit to the Canadian Immigration Centre.
Halifax’s Pier 21 was one of the major ports where immigrants entered the country, and it has now been transformed into a national museum telling the stories of people from all over the world who came here and made Canada their home. And the experience was really revealing.
Yes, I have experienced rejection, the feeling of not belonging, displacement. But I always have a home to come to—a country that I love and belong to. Soheila’s presentation and the testaments of immigrants that I read and listened to in the museum took me to a deeper experience of what displacement really feels like. Of the longing to belong and the joy that comes with a fresh start, a simple acknowledgement and a kind word.
The theme is one explored by Soheila’s installation in the gallery of the museum. She asked people close to her to donate things to her exhibit that was expressive of their culture. She received drawings, flowers—even a tag from a H&M shirt made in Bangladesh! The items were transferred onto white plates with blue printing, referencing collector’s items and souvenirs that we attach meanings of culture to. It was beautiful, and made me wonder what relic I would have donated to her exhibition, what item or memory expresses my cultural identity.
A highlight of the centre was a tour by George, a man in his 80s who immigrated from Scotland in 1951 and entered Canada through Pier 21. His firsthand testimony of what it was like for people entering with crates of belongings, or with suitcases, or with absolutely nothing, was to travel back in time. Especially when he told his own story and showed pictures of his passport when he entered Canada.
Like many people across the country, my own home town of Saskatoon has experienced an influx of new immigrants over the last year. Known for its volunteerism, we had great supporters bringing out clothes, donations and helping. But this experience is making me consider what else I can do to make newcomers to my neighbourhood feel more welcome. Because I do believe that our country is richer for the diversity that immigrants bring. Our real challenge is not to be diverse, but to be inclusive.