Voices and Silence: Reflections on Authorship and Community

By: Sara Breitkreutz

[C]onflicting interpretations of the past, serving to legitimate a particular understanding of the present, are put to use in a battle over what is to come. What are at issue are competing histories of the present, wielded as arguments over what should be the future.

Doreen Massey, Places and Their Pasts1

One afternoon in mid-October, as I crunched through leaves swept onto on the sidewalk on Charlevoix Street by a crisp autumn breeze, I ran into an old friend, a young man from Bangladesh whose family had moved to Montreal when he was an infant. “What are you doing here?” I asked cheerfully, after we had greeted each other. “I live here!” he replied, and it came back to me. He had mentioned years earlier that he lived somewhere in the southwest, but at the time I had not yet been to Point Saint Charles, and the neighbourhood was merely a fuzzy zone in my mental map of the city comprised of factories and condos and easily confused with Saint Henri and Verdun.

He asked, on somewhat firmer ground, what I was doing here, and I told him about the Right to the City project, that I had just started my PhD and was taking a course on public history in order to learn how to produce a place-based audiowalk. After we had finished catching up and the chill in the air had convinced us to continue towards our respective indoor destinations, I reflected sheepishly on my surprise that he was from the neighbourhood. Why shouldn’t he be? His family had lived in the same house for most of his life, and he had gone to a francophone public school in the Point. He had, I slowly realized, lived in Point Saint Charles longer than some of the people whose interviews we had just begun perusing in order to learn more about the neighbourhood’s history and find raw audio material for our walking tour. How is it that his presence in the Point—beyond the normal surprise at seeing an old friend in an unfamiliar context—could have presented itself as such an anomaly? Why had I not been thinking about him, his family, and his experience (perhaps not specifically, but in terms of his position as the child of first-generation South Asian immigrants to Montreal) in my consideration of the history of Point Saint Charles?

My specific question here is this: what are the structures, discourses, practices, and events that culminated in my friend’s voice being left out of our audio tour of Point Saint Charles? Of course, any research project relying on interviews is shaped by questions of local politics, access to and acceptance from the ‘community’ (whatever that may be understood to be), and the decisions of potential interviewees to participate or not, not to mention constraints imposed by time and other limited resources. I don’t intend these reflections to be a criticism of the amazing and valuable work done by the team of researchers and interviewers who compiled the oral history database2 which has made this semester’s work possible, nor do I mean to suggest that there is a ‘right’ way to conduct such projects. Rather, I am curious about the methodological limitations of working with pre-recorded interviews in a public database to produce a work that constructs one (albeit critical and multivocal) version of a local history. I’m also curious, more broadly speaking, about the ways in which certain voices come to be excluded from public narratives of history, neighbourhood, and belonging, and similarly how some people—like my friend—might be recognized as more or less ‘authentic’ members of a community, and therefore as more or less legitimate authors of its collective history.

Many of the ‘official’ histories of Point Saint Charles coalesce around certain themes3: the early arrival of French colonial missionaries and subsequently of English, Scottish, and then Irish settlers; the area’s development into an industrial centre along with the construction of the nearby Lachine Canal, from which the frequent characterization of the neighbourhood as ‘working-class’ is derived; the tension which developed along linguistic, socioeconomic and spatial lines, between business-owning Anglophones in the north and factory-employed Francophones in the south; and, of course, the neighbourhood’s deindustrialization and population decline, seen as continuous with its recent ‘condoization’, and all of the stories of resistance and community activism that are another well-known hallmark of the Point. Indeed, the oral history interviews on which we based our audio tour largely corroborated these themes, and so we collectively identified ‘linguistic tension’, ‘deindustrialization’, ‘neighbourhood change’, and ‘community activism’ amongst our organizing criteria for sifting through the interviews as well as our additional archival sources. But each of these themes can conceal as much as it reveals: early colonization by the French was done at the direct expense of existing Mohawk communities, and St. Gabriel’s Farm, an icon of Point Saint Charles’ colonial past, was not only an agricultural provider for the growing settlement of Ville Marie, but also a military outpost in the war against the Iroquois.4 The focus on tensions between Francophones and Anglophones obscures the presence of other immigrants from Europe, and later, Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean, not to mention Aboriginal people who live in the city. Even the framing of Point Saint Charles as a postindustrial neighbourhood might exclude the (hi)stories of people whose residence in the Point has little to do with this industrial past5.

Due largely to constraints of time—ours being a relatively complex group project ambitiously realized over a period of about three months—we took these pre-existing interviews as our primary resource for the construction of the audio tour. We began the term with the understanding that supplementary interviews could be conducted, but by the time we had familiarized ourselves with the gaps, erasures and silences in our histories of the Point, we didn’t have the resources (time or energy) to address them the way we would have liked.6 Still, we remained cognizant of the potential for erasure contained within our project. At various times throughout our research and creative process, we asked ourselves: which stories are missing? Whose voices are not heard? We made a deliberate effort to keep the audio tour as multivocal as possible, resisting the formulation of any one cohesive narrative in favour of a multi-perspectival history in which disparate voices speak alongside one another without having to agree7. We also identified sites along our route that were not mentioned in the interviews, but which we nonetheless felt should be included in the tour, like the Gurudwara Sahib Sikh Temple on Wellington Street and the Filipino Seventh Day Adventist Church on Fortune. While the inclusion of these sites in our beta version of the audiowalk was important to us, we were aware that our constructed narratives lacked the impact of the voices of interviewees that accompanied us in other sections of the tour.

This leads me to formulate my question with respect to methodology. The development of the Stories Matter software by the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling, which provides access to searchable oral history interview databases and was the basis for our compilation of the audiowalk, is a valuable contribution within an expanding field of the use of digital media for oral history.8 While using the interview database enabled our project in many ways, it might be useful to ask about its limitations as well. If we accept, along with Tebeau, that “the human voice … [evokes] place in visceral and profound ways” (2013:28), then what is the effect of including some (kinds of) voices—audible voices, more than metaphors for expression or perspective—in an audiotour purporting to explore the history of a particular place, and excluding others? How were the original interviewees contacted and selected? How might sensitivity to the aforementioned limitations of ‘community-based’ research—if we understand community as a contested and emergent concept without clear or objective boundaries—be incorporated into a project that is one step removed from the original research and interview process? To what extent was the narrative of community we tried so hard to sensitively and multivocally articulate in our audiowalk already shaped by the methodologies employed in the gathering of interviews for the database, specifically the participation of some residents of Point Saint Charles—notably longer-term residents, Francophones and Anglophones (rather than allophone immigrants)—and not others, like my Bangladeshi-Canadian friend and his family?

To reiterate, I don’t mean this as an indictment of oral history methodology in this particular case or in general; rather I am reflecting on the various elements that comprise the authorial ‘voice’ (here going back to the metaphor) of a historical audio tour. In writing and compiling the tour, we discussed at length our responsibility for its authorship, and tried to make it clear in the tour that what we had constructed, while supported by the voices of others, was a result of our own perspectives as community outsiders and students. But authorship emerges and is refined at each step of the process, not simply in the final product. Authorship is as much about what isn’t included in that product as what is. If some residents of Point Saint Charles, for whatever reason, are less willing or able to articulate personal and collective histories, should we still make efforts to include their perspectives? Are public history projects like this self-selecting for participants who already feel they have a stake in the telling of community history? If so, what are the implications for public history projects, conceptually and methodologically?

No historical account can ever be complete, or free from some form of silence or erasure. But if, as Massey says, histories are always politically implicated in visions of the present and negotiations of the future, it is our responsibility as oral historians to pay as much attention to silence—to ask what silence has to say—as we do to voices.

References Cited

Ames, Herbert Brown. The City Below the Hill: A Sociological Study of a portion of the City of Montreal. Montreal: Bishop Printing and Engraving, 1897.

Le Collectif CourtePointe. Pointe Saint-Charles: un quartier, des femmes, une histoire communautaire. Montreal: Les éditions du rémue-ménage, 2006.

Massey, Doreen. “Places and Their Pasts”. History Workshop Journal 39, 1995: 182–192.

Société d’histoire de Pointe-Saint-Charles

2009 Les cahiers de la Société d’histoire de Pointe-Saint-Charles: Autour de la ferme Saint-Gabriel des sulpiciens de Montréal. Montreal: Savanna Technologies.

Tebeau, Mark. “Listening to the City: Oral History and Place in the Digital Era.” The Oral History Review 40 n.1, 2013: 25–35.

Zembrzycki, Stacey. “Bringing stories to life: using new media to disseminate and critically engage with oral history interviews.” Oral History 41 (2013): 98–107.

1 (1995:185).

2 We used the custom-designed software Stories Matter, developed by the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling (http://www.stories-matter.org), and specifically the interviews conducted as part of a project called From Balconville to Condoville? (http://postindustrialmontreal.ca/project/balconville-condoville).

3 See for example Ames (1897); Collectif CourtePointe (2009).

4 (Société 2009).

5 It could of course be argued that even people who moved to Point Saint Charles after its deindustrialization did so because of real estate prices that were its result; but what I’m interested in here is how people frame their own sense of belonging in the community, and whether or not more recently arrived residents feel connected to the neighbourhood’s industrial history.

6 We ‘flagged’ several concerns that we hope might be dealt with in the final version of the audiowalk, which will be completed in May 2015.

7 Here we were following Massey’s call for a “way of understanding which … [does] not try to seal a place up into one neat and tidy ‘envelope of space-time’ but which [recognizes] that what has come together, in this place, now, is a conjunction of many histories and many spaces” (1995:191).

8 (Tebeau 2013; Zembrzycki 2013).