Larry Grant recalls the days from the 1940s to the 1960s when gardens blanketed great swathes of the Musqueam Reserve.
“Here were these farmers working there, toiling every day planting vegetables to be sold and everything was in straight lines,” Grant, 77, said. “And they were all guys, there were no women, and they all spoke Cantonese.”
Farmers from Guangdong, China, including Grant’s father, cultivated farms on the flatlands along the Fraser River on Musqueam land from the turn of the 20th century into the 1960s, supplying much of the Lower Mainland’s produce. Bok choy, su choy and gai lan grew alongside Western celery and cabbage. Grant says his father spotted the Musqueam woman who became Grant’s mother while working the land.
The federal Indian Act of the day didn’t allow non-aboriginal men to be around aboriginal women on the reserve, Grant says in a video called Not Belonging co-created by University of B.C. master’s student Sarah Ling for the Chinese Canadian Stories project. The project was sponsored by Citizenship and Immigration Canada, UBC and Simon Fraser University. But the pair had four children together.
After Ling heard Grant’s story, she and a team of Musqueam interviewers and historians secured grants and spent the summer of 2012 collecting oral histories from 18 Musqueam elders, their descendants and members of Chinese farming families. Ling helped create standardized oral history interview forms that members of the Musqueam community can use for future projects. The stories were filmed and the team collected and digitized archival records and photographs.
“What came out a lot is that different relationships were formed that allowed both the Chinese and Musqueam to thrive as unique peoples, especially during the early 20th century when these two segregated communities were not accepted by the greater society,” Ling said. “There was a relationship of respect, so respecting different cultures, different practices.”
Ling grew up aware of relationships between Chinese immigrants and aboriginal people. Her great, great-uncle was one of the first Chinese merchants to settle in Prince Rupert, traded with aboriginal people and fathered the first Chinese-Canadian baby in that city.
“The general public is very interested and surprised [about this history of cooperation between the Musqueam community and Chinese immigrants] because it’s not something that we’ve learned in school,” Ling said. “It’s primarily the history of colonization through European-indigenous relations.”
She says projects like hers are part of a movement to bring together different communities.
“And with this whole year of reconciliation, we’re all trying to find out ways to move forward in a respectful way,” Ling said. “For me, learning about the farmers at Musqueam provides a model for us to reach towards or to learn from.”
Grant says the farms vanished after the federal department of Indian affairs arranged a lease on some of the farmland with the Shaughnessy golf course and presented it to the band as a deal it couldn’t refuse. Additional farmland was leased for housing and farmers were offered annual leases.
“There were no repercussions [from the farmers],” Grant said. “They understood the value of the dollar.”
Ling and Grant have collaborated on a trilingual historically based children’s book they hope to publish next month through the band's Musqueam language and culture department. The book will be in English, Chinese and the Musqueam language, hən'q'əmin'əm'.
(This story has been edited since it was first posted.)