“Cultural diversity is a fact of life,” said Dr. Gilberto Fernandes as he reflected on the 10th anniversary of the Portuguese Canadian History Project (PCHP) during the Department of History’s 6th annual Public History Symposium. It is precisely this cultural diversity that drives public history projects to diversify archival collections.
Held at York University on Friday, September 28th and titled “Diversity in the Archives,” the symposium brought together professionals in museums, archives, and public history projects from across Canada. The symposium was sponsored by the Archives of Ontario and the Avie Bennett Historica Chair in Canadian History.
For Coptic immigrants, cultural diversity is indeed a fact of life. The Coptic Canadian History Project (CCHP) is a not-for-profit public history and community outreach organization founded in November 2016 as a forum to bridge the gap between public archives, immigrant communities, and academic scholars. As I shared in a recent article to Coptic Voice, the CCHP is the first ever repository to prioritize the history and collective memory of ‘ordinary’ Coptic immigrants. We work with like-minded individuals to organize and host conferences, exhibits, and facilitate the donation of historical documents and photographs to the Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections (CTASC) at York University.
At the symposium, I represented the CCHP in the first panel on “Archiving from Below” with Dr. Gilberto Fernandes, Dr. Christopher Grafos (Greek Canadian History Project), and Dr. Gabriele Scardellato (Italian Canadian Archives Project). We were asked: what does it mean to archive from below? While each participant responded in such a way that reflects their own immigrant community, we shared key points in common.
1) By prioritizing the diversity of experiences within immigrant communities, we seek to reach beyond static homogeneity and instead support what Dr. Grafos called “counter-narratives;” the often marginalized stories of groups and individuals that do not conform to the dominant narrative propagated by traditional clergy and prominent lay elites.
2) With our online globalized presence, public history projects like the CCHP get to work with established archives to create more representative holdings and to push the country’s archival collections to be more progressive and acquisition driven. Donated collections reflect the social milieu in which they were produced, and allow scholars to then do the work of ‘reconstruction’ to expose narratives that make it difficult for those seeking to dilute a community’s history or twist it to their own ends.
3) As both community ‘insiders’ and academics, we have the privilege to share people’s stories and to inform prospective donors of the value of archival preservation. Coptic populations are understandably very distrustful of such a process, due to fears of ‘leaving’ treasured collections in public archives, or anxiety of government targeting (back in Egypt) to make that material publicly accessible. Instead, valuable materials sit on dusty shelves, at the mercy of the elements and liable to degrade with the passage of time. These issues create barriers that make the advancement of historical knowledge difficult.
These barriers are precisely why we strongly encourage and invite all Coptic immigrants to consider archiving and preserving their family records. As Donna Bernardo-Ceriz (Ontario Jewish Archives) highlighted in the second panel on “Diversifying Collections, Then and Now,” archiving exposes diversity by capturing a multiplicity of stories. History is routinely told through western structures. Yet this may not always serve the needs of every community.
Community archival structures (such as the way Coptic populations organize, transmit, and reproduce knowledge) should be respected, and this cannot happen without community involvement and support. As Cassandra Tavukciyan (Multicultural History Society of Ontario) rightly asserted, we are all better served as a society when archiving occurs from within. Members of respective communities should be encouraged to speak and collaborate in creating collections for preservation.
We understand that change takes time. Reflecting on the second anniversary of the CCHP, I am delighted by the archival holdings we have helped to donate. This material is either now available, or in the processes of being made available, to anyone who visits the York University campus in Toronto. This work has already borne fruit, as some of my own students (Coptic immigrants and their descendants) are exposed to their heritage upon visiting the archives. I hope that we will continue to see members of Coptic communities across North America preserve our shared, priceless heritage. This work will succeed and grow with your help, and we will always strive toward building your trust.
The CCHP also hosts a Digital Café, comprised of a Scholar’s Corner blog and an Immigrants’ Stories collection. These community driven portals host a diversity of opinions and activities that color the experiences of Coptic populations in the Middle East and North Africa, Europe, North America, and their descendants. We invite you to read or listen to their stories, ask all established and junior scholars to introduce their work, and all interested community members to participate and leave something new for future generations.
The experiences of Coptic populations are boundless. Dr. Grafos was absolutely right when he said that “the immigrant experience transcends ethnic boundaries.” As I look to the future of the CCHP, I see the richness of telling stories of inter-ethnic cooperation, of inter-denominational exchange, and of inter-communal tensions that speak to the experiences of individuals, neighborhoods, and cities. We hope to detail such diversity with our second digital exhibit, currently in development—a multimedia digital timeline of twentieth century migrations out of colonial and cosmopolitan Egypt.
Our connection to York University, a leading research and educational institution in Canada, and the scholarly rigor with which we tell stories, allows us to faithfully meet your expectations without undue interference from outsiders or the elites of our community. We hope to see many new and familiar faces at the third annual CCHP conference being planned for May 2019. Such initiatives continue to bring attention to Coptic populations, and succeed in large part with the collaboration of our partners at York University.
Thank you to all those who have participated and a warm welcome to all those hearing about us for the first time. We look forward to many more years of collaboration and growth.
The CCHP is always looking for people to contribute to our digital initiatives. Please contact theCCHP@gmail.com if you would like to join or support the Project.
Michael Akladios is a doctoral candidate at York University and holder of the 2018 Avie Bennett Dissertation Scholarship in Canadian History. Michael’s dissertation examines the transnational, pluricultural, and ecumenical history of Coptic Orthodox Christian immigrants, first in Egypt and then later in the first and largest immigrant communities in Toronto, Montreal, and New York. In addition to his doctoral research, Michael is the founder and project manager of the (CCHP), a not-for-profit public history and community outreach organization affiliated with the Department of History and the Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, York University Libraries.